norbert blei | addendum

20 09 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 199 | September 20, 2009

Addendum

to the Word Riot Interview, September 16, 2009
http://www.wordriot.org/template_3.php?ID=2055

by
Norbert Blei

Let me begin by thanking everybody who responded to this interview via e-mail or in the commentary section of the Word Riot interview conducted by writer David Hoenigman. I’m humbled, appreciative, encouraged by the community of readers and writers out there—of all ages. Which brings me to the reason for this addendum.

There’s a question that David Hoenigman asked me in the interview that continues to bother me because I feel I did not give it enough serious thought. My reply seems too quick, a little ‘smart-ass’ bordering on arrogant, though that was not my intention. I was caught up no doubt in the momentary rush of “MY answer”—dismissing, in a way, the source and sense of the Word Riot website for something different, distant, more esoteric. Thus my reply, ‘More foreign than American’, instead of a more perceptive answer for “new authors,” American perhaps, though I have no knowledge if the interviewer had this in mind. Nevertheless…David asked (and I replied):

DH: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

NB: More foreign than American. And they are ‘new’ (most of them) only because I may have either recently discovered them—or finally gotten around to reading them.

As I study Word Riot’s engaging website more carefully, run through all the work and names of new, unknown writers (to me)…working/writing hard to be heard, I am reminded of my own long journey…how many little mags I submitted work to in the 60’s and 70’s, from mimeograph publications, to beautiful literary quarterlies. How I longed for a tidbit of recognition: “That was a good story you wrote.” How many early stories were rejected or occasionally accepted. Just how long this apprenticeship takes—or never ends. How many writers finally give up, drop out, start selling life insurance…settle for less, or something else. The whole process wears you down. Makes you angry. Bitter. Resigned. But you’re either a writer or you’re not. Only you and time can tell. Recognized, unrecognized. Success has nothing to do with it.

Writers are new and unknown. And just as many of them: older and unknown …forgotten… ‘successful’ (some of them) in that they may have established a good track record of publications through the years–books, articles, essays, stories, poems. But almost nobody knows their name. I try to be mindful of this with my own small press, mixing the new with the old … occasionally presenting ‘veteran’ writers such as the late Curt Johnson, his work, his dedication to the small press movement in America.

Though books by strangers arrive in my mail frequently, subscriptions to various little mags call for my attention, it’s clear I can no longer keep up with all the new writers, given the even wider distribution of work in our times: online writing, print-by-demand, YouTube. I can only look in awe at the whole process, catch hold of whatever drifts into my hands, before my eyes–often by pure chance. The same way Word Riot was passed on to me via a link by writer John Bennett—and an unknown writer (to me), David Hoenigman, wondered if I would write something, submit to a few questions.

That’s precisely the way the small press/little mag publication (now, online publishing) has always worked. That’s the lifeblood. The ‘underground’ circulation. Writers aware of each other—and spreading the word, if and when the spirit moves them. Of course there’s competition, jealousy, mean-spiritedness, maybe guilt…but there’s also generosity. People in the arts, especially, need to be reminded of this. It’s not always, just about ‘you’—but maybe that strange bird out there in Mississippi writing such real/raw/incredible stories, his sentences running on and on with no tolerance for punctuation, or that shy woman in Massachusetts, dressed all in white, knocking out those small, mystifying poems, stashing most of them in her dresser drawer till the day she dies.

I didn’t/don’t know David Hoenigman, who interviewed me, and still don’t. Though, because he asked something of me, I’ve since discovered a little here and there about him. He’s the ‘younger generation’ of that I’m sure. Probably ‘lost’—where every new generation of writers finds itself. Years galore no doubt separate David from me, though the beauty of the writing-life: this doesn’t matter. He lives ands writes from Japan, though how and why he (an American from Cleveland) landed there, I have not a clue. He has, to my knowledge, one book to his name so far. Not a book I know or have read—but will, eventually. And I’m going to BUY a copy—for his sake, a new writer.

You can learn more about David on two great websites/publications. The fact that he got some ink in Rain Taxi almost make me jealous. A superb publication. I’ve never appeared there—and wish now that I had tried. Time, time, time….

You’ll find an excellent interview concerning David and his work in Rain Taxi at http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2009spring/hoenigman.shtml


and can read an excerpt from his book, BURN YOUR BELONGINGS in Smoke Box at http://www.smokebox.net/archives/fiction/hoenigman606.html

Judging from the interview of him and the engaging excerpt from his book, I see and am reminded that David (and occasionally other new writers) seems taken with what we once called ‘experimental writing.’ Which I find a good and necessary thing. If you journeyed your way through writing-as-a-life with some success but never stopped to smell the roses of experimental writing—your education remains incomplete. It may be too late; then again, it may not.

While this remains a playing field for the young, for awhile…some of our ‘elders’ who stayed with it found such meaning and satisfaction there, they never left. But remained, sometimes confused, mumbling to themselves, their work perhaps unreadable/unread–or, turned over the soil so deep, reached new heights at such depths, blossomed in a way or a work or language exclusively their own. Let me throw out the name James Joyce. His one book which changed the course of modern literature.

But I’m getting carried away with the subject, with myself. Let me wrap this up.

For David, and other new, ‘experimental’ writers. I envy your interest and work in that area. I loved, and occasionally still practice it myself. It is a great teacher of narrative, of image, of patterns. It can open the mind like the breath of a fresh haiku.

However—-never think you have discovered anything new. It’s ALL been done before. From automatic writing to flash fiction to…you name it. Lit critics are as good as New York fashion folk in slapping new names to old concepts. Have you ever read Raymond Queneau? Jean-Francois Bory? Henri Michaux? Apollinaire? How concrete can writing get? kitasono katue’, Gerhard Ruhn, Carlo Belloli, ??? If you’ve never met Francis Ponge upon the page—you’re in for one hell of an introduction. He’ll steal your mind away. The diaries of Gombrowwicz will take you to places you cannot imagine. If essay is your calling: what’s a feuilleton (see Ludvik Vaculik) or a cronica (see Clarice Lispector)—which may be different names for things we already know, though conceived in different ways.

Bern Porter comes to mind too…once published by Something Else Press in the early 70’s—which was really something else. Both the press and the lively literary times. Find every Something Else Press book or pamphlet you can lay your hands on. Look up Dick Higgins sometime—boy, could he/did he set the table for a language feast. What else can a writer do and learn about us—experimenting with our everyday language of life?

No, you have not discovered something new. You are only fine-tuning the process but—with any luck, making it a little more your own. Which is no little thing.

Sooner or later, as I said before, it all comes back to story. Where it begins. If you lose that in the process of experimenting with words to make meaning, you’ve lost your reader and yourself.

ULYSSES is just an old, old story. Made different, anew, alive in the language of Joyce.





norbert blei | cabin fever

5 07 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.187 | July 4, 2009

Editor’s Intro to Summer:

This is the weekend of the 4th of July. Officially summer in these parts for many. Summer ends whenever school bells ring. A solemn note. A memorable sadness. Something akin to a judicial sentencing: time to be served.

But there is both essence and absence to the nature of time in summer. Measured, if at all, by a daily offering of sunshine, blue skies, perfect temperatures…the feeling you will live forever. This is what Eden must have been all about. Still calling us home

Summer here in northern, Midwestern America, and other parts of the world as well, is all about escape. From and to. And part of that destination (summer and fall/winter) remains the old cabin…in the woods…by a lake…

I don’t believe there was a cabin in biblical Eden.

But I do believe they are on the endangered local cultural habitations list. Almost extinct—the originals.

You may have to search the deepest woods, nameless little lakes, farthest reaches of True North to find what I’m talking about.

Lucky the person who does…whatever the season. Summer especially. –Norbert Blei

Cabin Fever

by Norbert Blei

As change makes itself seen, felt upon a way of life and place and work once rural…going, going, going…..gone…
Gone the way of the outhouse, the chicken coop, the windmill, the granary, the machine shed, the milk house, the corncrib, the root cellar, the cistern, the pigsty, the silo, the woodshed, the red barn, the white farmhouse, the home-made flagpole (hewn from a cedar tree) with American flag flying in a blue sky…
goodbye, too, “a cabin in the woods”.
Urban sprawl, urban folks, urban values
assaulting the spirit of the rural, the rustic, the real,

reducing open land and shoreline to NO TRESSPASSING `property’. ..
But welcome Mr. & Mrs. Moreanmore and their minions,
in their million dollar mansions with stone pillar entrances
studded with bronze plaques: “Innisfree”, “Sherwood Forest”, “Dreamthorp”;
gated developments;
class condominiums (Cottage Cove);
phony farmsteads, phony farmers, phony farm animals (llamas in Dairyland). ..
Give me a _ _ _ _ _ _ _ break.

Be mindful of the cabin, I say to no one in particular.
Look and you shall still find them, here and there.
A cabin beside a small blue lake in summer…

A cabin under a canopy of golden maples in autumn…
A cabin buried deep in the woods, deep in snow.
Pause, pay attention, your last respects. Circle the dwelling in reverie.
Peer into the windows.
Try the door. Take up a chair and sit down.
Leave everything untouched. And do not forget:

  • -one room
  • -in a woods
  • -facing water or within the sound of water
  • -made of pine…inside and out..
  • -a saggy pine wood floor that creaks with each footfall
  • -no insulation…bare studs, honey-colored with time…
  • -nails sticking through the water-stained walls inside
  • -a penciled note stuck through the nail sticking through the inside wall
  • -`Ernest’ it reads `firewood, eggs, tape, raspberry jam.’
  • -a wood stove with a stove pipe poking through a torn shingled roof
  • -the lingering smell of wood smoke in winter…soot marks
  • -a wooden screen door with rusty, spring action:
  • BANG BANG BANG. open/shut/open/shut/open/shut/open/shut
  • -a warped wooden front door that doesn’t shut …
  • -a back wooden door locked, with no key
  • -space at the bottom of both doors and around all the window to let the cold air in
  • -old coffee cans and a rusty bucket to catch the rain leaking in through the roof
  • -spider webs in the corners and most of the windows
  • -moths on the screens all summer long
  • -garter snakes under the cabin
  • -frost, ice, snow, on the window glass
  • -mismatched windows, one in each wall, two with muslin curtains, two without
  • -flies, fly swatters, sticky fly paper, dead flies … spiders … ants…mosquitoes …lady bugs…lightning bugs…bats…toads…field mice…wasp nest under an eave outside…
  • -a cardboard box of faded newspapers and kindling wood
  • -rag rugs
  • -a boxes of wooden matches, Diamond brand
  • -burnt candles and kerosene lamps…
  • -an overhead lighting fixture with a 40 watt bulb
  • -three windows with cracked glass
  • -a girlie calendar (1953) “Harold’s Auto Repairs” hanging near the kitchen sink
  • -open shelves above an old gas stove filled with Melmac ware, a couple of cracked China plates, and coffee cups, all but two with the handles broken off
  • -dripping faucet
  • -rust-stained enamel sink
  • -a tiny piece of Lux soap, almost translucent, resting on the windowsill above the sink
  • -a rose floral patterned drape of washed-out material hanging on a piece of string covering the plumbing beneath the sink and a new bar of Fels Naptha soap.
  • -a galvanized bucket
  • -a rag mop in the kitchen corner and a red wooden broom worn sharp to an angle, broken straw every which way
  • -three wooden Victory mousetraps, one still armed with hard old cheese
  • -a cabinet drawer filled with mismatched dinnerware: knives, forks, not enough spoons… a rusted church key can opener, a dull bread knife, a broken spatula, and a large chipped enamel ladle…
  • -two burned pot holder near a gas burner too clogged to light.
  • -a maple-armed sofa covered in a torn blue bedspread across the back and an Indian blanket spread put the length to sit upon
  • -a blue knitting needle and three pennies lost between the cushions
  • -a rustic, wobbly wooden chair, cane seat coming apart, made from branches and a small and an apple crate end-table beside it with torn covers of National Geographic, the Reader’s Digest and fishing magazines.
  • -an old army cot in one corner, covered in an old woolen army blanket
  • -a wooden kitchen table covered in yellow oil cloth with cigarette burns on two sides and three mismatched painted wooden chairs
  • -a flat rock from the lake to set hot pots upon
  • -a shelf behind the front door holding a black and red check flannel hunting cap
  • and four broken clothes hooks on the wall beneath the shelf, with three wire hangers one of them holding a navy blue woolen sweater filled with moth holes
  • -a small bathroom, just a stool, with just enough room to squeeze into and hook the door with an almost empty roll of toilet paper behind you on the tank along with a book of matches: “Ed and Rosie’s Knot Inn”
  • -or an outhouse, with an ancient aroma both nostalgic and non-describable, light streaming in between the cracks, a huge spider web in one corner, old newspaper and Sears catalogs
  • -some evidence of a dog…an old collar, a chain leash…
  • -more evidence of fishing gear: bamboo poles, rods, reels, tangled lines, weights, bobbers, hooks, broken lures
  • -a musty, moldy smell—till the windows are open in spring and summer, till a fire is lit, autumn and winter.
  • -a small, brown plastic radio (mostly static) to listen to news, weather, and Golden Oldies…Going to Take a Sentimental Journey…till bedtime…

-perhaps partitioned bedroom, with a single or double bed to sit upon fully clothed, removing your shoes or boots, your funny old outdoor clothes, thrusting the body back upon the bed in a full stretch against the bare wall or worn head-board…a mattress, you don’t ever want to see…alive, alone, listening in the cabin-dark to the wind, the rain, the insects, the snow falling against the windowpane…freezing, roasting, never enough or too many sorrowful looking blankets, positioning yourself on that unmentionable mattress somewhere between almost comfortable and too soft for a tired back…seeking firmness or a full body press …then sinking slowly into a free fall of partially sleep. The feet frozen, the nose ice…and you sending out a shivering animal call in the pitch darkness of closed eyes, registering all the frenzied pain of C O L D …Was that a scream? Was that me? Two, too small, too soft, unsupportable pillows, punched into shape, sinking the head first followed by body-sinking into sub-zero cold, cold sheets, cold, plastic-covered mattress, falling further into a fetus position harboring a hope of warmth, thinking thoughts of found-in-the-morning-frozen-dead. Ah but for the grace and beauty of frost upon the window glass, (eyes open and shut) in the middle of the night, the middle of the full moon shining through. Must I get up, stand barefoot in the snow, and relieve myself out the front door? How could I ever leaves this home-made hollow of warmth to hibernate through the night, through the long, cold, beautiful winter? Am I working up a sweat? Was I once cold but now fill a fever upon me? Shall I make eggs and bacon for breakfast in a black, cast-iron pan? Salt and pepper the yolks galore? Toast some old rye bread?. Cut the last red potato into chunks, fry it in hot bacon grease, salt and pepper, in the same cast-iron pan…toss in some chopped onion, bits of cheddar cheese, caraway seed. Boil a pot of hot black strong to sit up and take notice of everything, day and night…Listen to the wind in the trees. It must be 20 below…Reach for and pull up that second-hand-shop, fuzzy-pilled, beige blanket of tattered-stitched edge at the end of the bed, too thin to offer much warmth for bare shoulders kissed all night by sudden wafts of cold air stealing in under the door… o beige blanket of too much history, too many bodies engaged in too many battlegrounds of human misunderstandings, lust, or love…falling further into a numb tranquility…a cabin’s the right place for love, for passion, for a solitariness of soul…I don’t where it’s likely to be better…cabin dreams, cabin coffee perking on the cabin stove …come morning, noon, night…come fresh snow, winter birds, sunrise over the white lake, cabin love.

[from WINTER BOOK, Ellis Press, PO Box 6, Granite Falls, MN 56241, $20]





norbert blei | acknowledgements

19 06 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.186 | June 19, 2009

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
by
Norbert Blei

“When the student is ready, the teacher arrives”—old Zen saying

To know, to recognize, to confess…

I tend to be overly critical of those who for whatever reason (usually ignorance) fail to say a simple Thank You for any goodness graciously bestowed upon them. A lesson, supposedly learned in childhood. But one too often forgotten these days, when every good act seems taken for granted—even worse, deserved.

If anything, I am usually overly thankful for just about anything anyone does for me, from a waitress pouring me yet another cup of coffee; a bartender ‘topping off’ my Scotch; a mechanic who makes a minor adjustment on my car and sending me off with a wave-of-a-hand and a “Get outa here,” as I open my wallet. Random acts of kindness, all. Thank you.

All of which leads to why I am so perturbed by my own inexcusable behavior, unexplainable action of failing to acknowledge an incredible act of beauty, wonder, and kindness bestowed upon me by a group of my old writing students from The Clearing, almost a year ago.

In an attempt to make both this and a long story short, I left The Clearing in June of 2007 after my annual writing class. I was unhappy with the new management, the new approach to an old, wonderful folk-school created in 1935 by an extraordinary man, a landscape architect, Jens Jensen, at the age of 75. And though I began working with writers at his school about twenty years after Jensen’s death, I felt I knew him intimately through his writings, through friends of his who became my friends, through the very setting itself, a landscape of woods and water, which became part of you as you became part of it, part of the greater wonder of the natural world which Jensen surely inhabited and wanted to share. To know this place was to know him.

But all of this, to my mind, seemed threatened by the usual forces of mostly well- meaning people, good intentions…and sometimes questionable personalities and deeds–though the board that governed it was a good one led, till just recently, by Tim Stone, who devoted a good part of his life attempting to honor the Jensen philosophy of leaving well-enough (nature) alone.

Still, it was not the place I remembered. (Irreconcilable differences.) And so ‘the teacher who arrived” in the 1970’s decided it was time to depart, much to his sadness.

[Ed. Note: Confirmed sources report that when present management is asked around The Clearing dining table: “Why isn’t________ teaching here any more?” The management response is: “He retired.” Correction: He never retired. He resigned. He left.]

A year after my departure, a group of my old (and some new) writing students decided to keep the class in session. If not The Clearing. Elsewhere. Too many bonds had been made that refused to be broken. As plans were being made, I informed these good people that whatever they wanted to do was fine with me—but not to count on me teaching. I made a promise to myself—and Tim Stone– that I would do no teaching for a year. Wait things out.

My old class met last year at the Little Sister Resort in Sister Bay, Wisconsin less than 10 miles south of The Clearing. A similar, beautiful setting. They organized their own class, did their own teaching, had one great time. I stopped by on the last night, for the usual Friday night party and reading. (I really missed these folks.)

The upshot of that week became a book from that class—A SLENDER THREAD –which they dedicated to me. And so here it is, a year later, I’m still searching for a way to acknowledge this, the gift of themselves, their words and images, their love for the small community of writers we developed over the years in a setting of peace and contemplation envisioned by one man search for community in a natural setting.

In fear of turning this into an Oscar “Thank you” marathon of everyone imaginable (including God)…I want each of them to know that this is it—the Big Thank You. A year late. I could hardly bring myself to open the book in all that time. I learned as much if not more from each of you that you may have learned from anything I brought to the table all through the years.

Few but the writers within these pages have seen this book. Which, perhaps, is as it should be. I doubt any library has a copy. I doubt the Clearing has one. It doesn’t matter. I suspect one might be borrowed from one of the contributors—or tracked down through the publisher, Ralph Murre.

Speaking of those contributors, my fantastic former students who appear in this volume, here are their names: Albert DeGenova, Alice D’Alessio, Bobbie Krinsky, Cass Hale, Catherine Hovis, Don Fraker, Emily Rose, Jackie Langetieg, Jude Genereaux, Karen Yancey, Kris Thacher, Maja Jurisic, Ralph Murre, Richard Finch, Sharon Auberle, and Susan O’Leary.

Seven of these students had their first books placed/published by my small press, Cross+Roads Press, and five others appeared in a best-selling, world-wide anthology of writing I edited and published in 2007, OTHER VOICES.

I thank my high-energy partner, Jude, with love-galore…a sort of house-mother to the group helping them organize/find the right location to keep the party going. I thank you all, in particular, Ralph, Sharon, Jude, and Susan for spear-heading the book, A Slender Thread. Susan, who became my teaching assistant/partner …is a special Eastern soul-woman of mine who breathes quiet in her very presence. (I was her high school English teacher many years ago. Another time. Another place. The wheel keeps on turning.)

I wish I had time and space to print everyone. Here are just a few offerings which lend, I trust, both an overview and an insight into who these people are, what they are all about. And why writing matters to us.

A Note From the Editor …


There was once a group of writers.

There was, for many years, a teacher.

There was once a school and times there that felt, to the writers, almost vital to their survival. They thrived in that school, learned, put out work even they didn’t know they were capable of. They were happy.

And then things changed, as they are wont to do. The teacher, for good reason, needed to move on to other things. The students were suddenly adrift, rudderless, lost.

Though the circumstances that had kept them close were gone, the group remained connected by a slender thread. They were supportive of, and inspirational to each other. This must not happen, we must remain connected, they all agreed, and so the Nota Bene Group was born—nota bene being Latin for note well, which is, of course, what a writer should always be doing. And a place was chosen—not the same place— changed things should not, must not, be the same. Little Sister Resort beckoned, drew the students in for a look. It was a warm and welcoming place, beautiful in its own, old Door County feel and the writers thought, yes, this could be the place.

Two teachers, former students of the old master, stepped up and offered to walk with the students. And the writers thought yes, this might work. And it did.

This book is the result. - Sharon Auberle


OVEN BIRD KNOWS

- for NorbertO’

Cool of a June-soft summer morning
aaaaaaathe Oven bird calls
“… teacher- Teacher- Teacher!-TEACHER!!”
aaaaWe walk the new road, find
same pearlescence of sky and light;
Spruce-poplar scent branding the air -
alimestone bluffs guard the bay, their
cedar arms encircle the fresh water sea
aaaarolling smooth the rush inside;
aaUnsure if this can be made right again
we search for the Way we thought we knew;
aaaabut that bird and I are still calling
… teacher- Teacher- Teacher!-TEACHER!!

- Jude Genereaux

A thread joins us
aaa slender enduring thread

no matter how many miles or hours apart
no matter those times we’ve circled each other in distance

as thread is wound onto a spool
in one unending line
following the sure pattern it comes to know
day by day
the thread has wrapped and held in our lives

it has worked in dailiness
in the simple straight stitch
that loops surely through our fabric
securing separate patterns
beginning and ending the day

and it has embroidered love
drawn our symmetry
met at our edges
chosen full color

as spools can sit unnoticed for years
lined up in a drawer
their own particular lavender
patient among azure among sage among linen
our thread has waited ready
to darn the hole
to mend the tear
we have found it each time

in missing you I imagine
that thread stretched heart to heart
if from this place I slowly unraveled a spool
brought it to the highway

and loosened it

it would in unfurling
in traveling those hundreds of miles to you
it would know its way home
it would hold the space
of the years we have sewn

Susan O’Leary

Night Poem

It’s too late,
Too late to call you.
It’s not just the clock.
I want to call
Who you used to be.

-Kris Thacher


Looking at Night Poem, the teacher, the writer in me senses:
There’s such a sadness in those three words, “used to be.”
There’s a story there somewhere.
A novel.
A whole life.

Norbert Blei






norbert blei | in memoriam

28 05 2009

St. Patrick at work at Gordon Lodge

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.182 | May 22, 2009

IN MEMORIAM, A FINAL TOAST TO THE WORLD’S GREATEST BARTENDER:

ST. PATRICK

by
Norbert Blei

In the end, St. Pat died pretty much the way he always lived—chasing that rainbow, that horse to the finish line. Only this time the odds were against him, age…poor health. And both the dream and the man finally died.

I’ll keep this short and add some excerpts from a chapter devoted to him which appeared in the third book of the Door Trilogy series. There’s a fourth book in the works. The final end of St. Pat will be found there. You can bet on it.

For now, let’s leave it like this: St. Pat crossed the finish line in Ohio last Friday, May 22, at the age of 81. If you knew the man, be assured he went out in style, grace, never at a loss for words, a smile on his face, with a ticket to ride on a long shot: Win, Place, or Show.

I haven’t read this piece since I wrote it over 20 years ago. I was amazed to discover how it ended–then and now.

Excerpts from

“St. Pat—and the End of the Rainbow”

Ah, for the breath of some blarney in a confused world of too many serious people trying to make too much sense out of everything. And nobody serves it up better (straight or on the rocks) then St. Patrick (alias James Patrick Fagan), Door County’s father to fallen souls, comforter (Southern or name you own nirvana) to troubled and untroubled hearts, Grand Marnier Master of Ceremonious Nights on the Door. (He tells of one forgettable night in his particular parish—the Top Deck of Gordon Lodge—when Grand Marnier flowed in such abundance that the Saint himself seemed baffled the next morning to find all the money slots of the cash drawer filled with it.) A man of many miracles. Wine to water was easy. But a cold cash drawer to Grand Marnier? Only an un-canonized Irish bartending saint could do.

Smile, Patrick! (Which is his winning way with the world.) He’s always smiling. (Or will be again, he promises, as soon as he gets his teeth fixed. He’s made a deal at the bar with some dentist. And you can bet your own teeth that St. Pat will soon be smiling with his new ivories—high-tailing it to Chicago, to Florida, or back to Door—while the dentist will be wondering who took the big bite out of him.

He’s a rolling stone, a ramblin’ man, the veritable “condition” our elders warned we might someday find ourselves in if we weren’t thrifty and well-behaved: a man without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out. Smile, Paddy! Your horse is in the money.

There he goes, snapping those fingers in front of your face, brushing that long wisp of black hair over his balding pate, flashing that smile, giving you the Irish: “I’m tellin’ ya! Listen to me!” Giving you his beautiful bullshit.

Dressed, always, partially in green, baggy pants hanging from his rather thin frame, his hands constantly fishing his front pockets for a cigarette lighter or cash. One of the biggest tippers of all time, he carries a crumpled wad of bills (his life savings) in his front pocket, pulling off fives and singles for the “help”—with whom he of course identifies. A single cup of coffee from a smiling waitress (say Denise Braun at Al’s) will net her at least a three dollar tip. Maybe five. The last of the big-time spenders. Definitely a city-type.

He loves children. Loves people. Loves charitable causes. More than a bit of the Irish in him. He’s definitely the guy who would give you the shirt off his own back. “I will donate to anything, as long as it’s a worthy cause.” Rich or poor, he’s been both. Sometimes in a matter of minutes.

Bless the fast horses, St. Patrick. And the long shots.

Of course there’s a bit of the con-artist about him. (Aren’t we all a little envious of the fast talker?) It’s the language of the survivor who must live by his mouth. A hustling life doesn’t come easy. And there are times the piper must be paid. Even moments of sadness around those black, beetle-brows and bright blue eyes of St. Pat. Bartender! Maybe just one more before I have another.

“Say,” he says to an attractive lady smoker, “Weren’t you at Gordon’s the other night? The Top Deck? Would you have an extra cigarette? Thanks. Did I hear Chicago?” he swings around toward another table. “Isn’t it beautiful here, this county? Stop by at the Top Deck for a drink.” He begins passing out brochures from his back pocket.

I manage to hustle him off one morning to a quiet picnic bench along the Lake Michigan shore for a few hours—definitely a fish out of water. St. Pat without a crowd—without strangers, without a bar to sit at or set up—is a drinker, a smoker doing cold turkey.

“Sit down, St. Pat, damn it! This is Mother Nature all around you. What you keep telling the tourists you love about Door County. Yes, I know, all it needs is a racetrack,” I tell him. Talk, say something!

But he’s befuddled. Frustrated. He’s on his last Camel cigarette. (Not that it matters what kind of cigarette at this point.) Already his flickering eyes are scanning the horizon, the empty picnic benches, the empty beach. St. Pat in exile. Who’s he gonna hit up for a smoke in this place?

“Don’t you have one cigarette on you?” he pleads. “Not one …’uckin’ cigarette? It’s OK. I’m alright. I’m telling you . . .” And he does.

His father, Peter Fagan, from County Cork, a railroad man, died when Patrick was 10. His mother, Mary Lenehan, lived to the age of 93. Cleveland, Ohio is home—was home. He doesn’t really have a home, except for summers in Door County, tending bar.

He lives in a suitcase, owns no car, no house, no bank account. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Zip. A man on the run.

“I travel with a deck of cards, ten pairs of socks, five pairs of shorts, and a rosary,” he laughs. “I’m not afraid to go into any city without a dime in my pocket. I’ve never missed a meal. Willing to do anything. I’m at ease with the Vanderbilts and the bums on the street because I speak the international language—friendship. Money is nothing to me. Money is a kernel of corn the Indians used to trade. I’ve seen wealth in action—many, many unhappy people screaming over a few measly dollars.”

Like many a good Irish lad, Jimmie Fagan seemed destined for the priesthood. That was his mother’s wish. “And there I was, on my way to Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. I left Holy Name High at the age of 14.1 worked nights on the railroad as a switchman. But I loved horses too. I worked days at the racetrack—Ascot Park in Akron, galloping the horses. Exercise boy. And then the family threw this party for me, sending me off to the seminary to be a priest. I had the black suit and the sheets and everything. And I was on the bus, talking to the driver, and we passed a racetrack in Maumee, Ohio . . . 1945. And the driver knew! He knew! Let me out of here! And I was off to the races. Because of my Irish mother, I didn’t go home for three years. Nor did I talk to her.

“I knocked around racetracks all over the country, and I noticed how dressed-up the jockey agents were. Agents are solicitors for mounts for a jockey. You gotta know breeding, be an excellent handicapper—which I was. It looked like dream street. The end of the rainbow! (St. Pat is standing now, hollering, rummaging through his pockets for a cigarette. I offer him a pipe—no good. The stub of my cigar—no good.) I’m alright! I’m alright! Let’s go. I gotta sell some more damn tickets!

“Where was I? The end of the rainbow! But little did I know, little did I know” (lots of drama in his wonderful Irish storytelling voice, lots of facial expression) “that the jockey agents were mostly broke! But anyway, I moved out of the bam and into a hotel. And I met a jockey, Eric Guerin, who went on to win every major stake in the country. And I was with him for 14, 15 years. Hialeah, New York, the Jersey . . .

“Goddamn it! Doesn’t anyone have a cigarette? It’s alright.

“I learned about the fast life—booze, broads, the good times. A beautiful woman in every city. Nice ladies. Mucho women. But they weren’t promiscuous women. I made them that way!

“At one point my jockey couldn’t make the weight anymore. And I felt I never really wanted another jockey because we were such good friends. So I went to Palm Beach, Florida on a vacation and I met a guy, Joe O’Hara, who said he needed a bartender. I lied and told him I could do it. He put me into the service area that night. And all of a sudden here come 10 professional cocktail waitresses, and they all started ordering drinks I never knew existed. I said, PLEASE, GET ME OUT OF HERE!

“O’Hara asked me if I could make a Scotch and water. Hell, that’s what I drink! Anyway, he told me he would teach me how to tend bar, but I could not participate in tips, or salary, till I learned how. After 10 days, he came in one night all dressed up with his wife. It was a Saturday night. And he said, “You’re on your own!”

“I was in my 30′s then. I had black beautiful hair and white teeth. The women would just roll all over me. I love all women, and no particular woman will ever catch my eye. Marriage, no. Still … I love kids. I would have loved to have some kids.”

“Some of the famous customers I served . . . Bishop Sheen, a CC Manhattan with a water back. Jack Kennedy. I trembled when he came in. Dewar’s White Label Scotch on the rocks. Always some joke. The latest joke. Jackie Gleason and his beautiful wife would sit at the bar and make my day by ordering champagne, $75 a bottle, I was very low key with him because I was always nervous when he came in. And he always shook my hand when he left—with a crisp C-note for the Saint!

“The name! The name! Saint Patrick. How I got my name. There was a theft at the hotel of towels and sheets—I mean, more than usual. And Mr. MacArthur hired some detectives and a lie detector expert to case the hotel. One day he came up to me and said: ‘Patrick, you really are a saint.’ I was clean. The detectives had watched me, cleared me. Little did he know I have a 6th sense about strange people watching me!”

. “…one time this couple comes in and tells me about their beautiful resort in Door County, Wisconsin. Phil and Curly Gordon, I snickered to myself and said, ‘Wisconsin? Door County, Wisconsin?’ After the Gordons left, a real elderly bartender, Eddie O’Brien, told me that Door County was exactly like Ireland. The next year, 1971 ,I arrived. By bus, of course, I don’t have my own car. I keep my life savings in my pocket.

“I said to myself :’This is it, brother. The end of the rainbow for me. ‘And I’ve been happy, happy, happy ever since.

“Phil Gordon to me was a genius. At first I didn’t realize why he had separated the bar from the dining room, but everything he did was right. He even had the windows of the Top Deck set a certain way so we can catch a double sunset. Genius! The man was a genius!

” One night he came into the Top Deck, I poured him his usual Scotch on the rocks, and he said: “You better have one yourself. He probably knew I already had 20. The people from Milwaukee always bought the bartender a drink. They didn’t tip—but they bought you a drink. Sure! Always. It’s an inside joke among the bartenders. We call them the F.B.I, agents because all they ever leave are fingerprints. And you must drink it right there. You can’t tell them you’ll have it later. They insist you have it in front of them. You see what Milwaukee’s done to me? I love ‘em.

“Many, many a night Phil Gordon and I sat alone in the Deck and drank till 7 in the morning. We discusses the world at large. He liked all the philosophers, and I liked Tolstoy—because he made love to every woman in sight! I loved Phil, Curly, the whole family.

“Where’s a cigarette, a cigarette?” He’s pacing the beach now, a determined man. “A butt, a butt. Isn’t there one stinking butt on this beach? See how clean this goddam county is! Can’t even find a cigarette butt here!

“My kind of bar is a one-man operation. It’s hard to work with other bartenders. I take charge of the room. I can see any argument starting in any part of the room. I eject them. No crabby people. Strictly happy people. I try to generate love in the room.

“The Top Deck is a finger-touch control bar. Phil created it. The view is the mostspectacular view in Door County. But the magic about the bar is the customers. Not just the hotel people, but the people in the county. And Chicago’s Northside. My favorites. Because they’re outgoing, likeable people, and it’s easy to make them laugh. If crabby people come in, it’s a personal challenge to me to make them laugh and enjoy themselves—because they’ll come back and tell their friends!

When the doors to Gordon Lodge and the Top Deck swing shut in mid-October, St. Pat is on the move once more. Time to pack the suitcase again. Time to board the bus. Take the act back on the road.

“Then it’s my vacation time,” he smiles. “After the season at Gordon’s and before coming back up here from Florida, I always hit Chicago. With my savings from both resorts in my pocket, I become a bartender’s delight. I check in at the Continental Hotel off Michigan Ave. All the staff, the help there know me. Gratuities flow like buttermilk. I can get any girl I want in Chicago by saying three magic words: Here’s a hundred. I high roll it!

“After about 7 days—the semi-annual collect call goes out to the good father for the non-transferable bus ticket to either Florida or Door County.”

The “good father”? “The Rev. H.J. Fagan, pastor of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Madison, Ohio. My brother. I call him Harry. He’s a top fund- raiser like myself. Once in a while he tries to hit me up for something. And he talks almost as fast as I do.”

We’re heading back to town now. Lunch at Al’s. A pack of cigarettes for St. Pat. (“Camels! The humper. Five packs a day!”) He must open the Top Deck in a couple of hours, but from now until then he’s pushing tickets for the Roast. As for the origin of the Bartenders’ Roast…”…this will be the biggest Roast ever. Al Johnson—my kind of guy. I was dumb till I seen him work. I’ve copied him. He is the top restaurateur. That’s why I respect him—because I only like winners. His people all love him. Love him, are you kidding? How’s this when I help to introduce him: ‘Al Johnson’s driving up to Door County, and this beautiful hitchhiker stops him. ‘Say,’ she says, ‘Do you go all the way?’ And Al drove her to Washington Island.’ “

Later, that afternoon/night at Gordon’s, the conversation continues:

“A bartender must be a good listener,” he continues. “He must be able to listen to five different conversations at one time and blend them all into one so that you have 10 happy people at the same time. Never discuss religion or politics. Memory! You must remember their drinks. And sometimes you must remember to forget who they are drinking with! And for my beautiful, beautiful ladies, I give them titles: Countess, Princess, Queen. Because I really believe that’s what they are.”

The banter, the blarney, the bull—the magic of St. Patrick. It’s irresistible. As addictive as alcohol. A double-whammy: St. Pat and a drink of your choice. He’s working some out-of-town customers at the bar now, charming them all. One guy, who finds St. Pat’s hyper-delivery too incredible for words, finally asks: “How long can you keep this up? How long do you work?” “All afternoon, all night,” St. Pat answers. “Six days a week.” The guy shakes his head in wonder, and keeps drinking.

It’s the Irish in him, I suggest.

“Just like my mother,” counters St. Pat. “She was a fast talker. A politico. Banging doors. Dragging me along with her. Talk to the people. It’s our heritage. You’re brought up to be proud of being an Irishman. I’ve worn green all my life. Of course the Irish build castles in the air. They’re all daydreamers. It’s a magical feeling. The outgoing personality . . . sometimes overpowering to some people. I can’t explain it. A lot of dopers ask me what I take. I tell them I’m on a natural high. And I love it, this way. I’m like this from the moment I wake up. I’m down very rarely. Only for 30 seconds. Then I lift my bootstraps right away, and I’m off to the races! It’s another hill to climb—make that a mountain.”

And what’s the biggest tip St. Pat ever received?

“$300 one night here in the Deck. They guy smiled and said he finally met a bartender who, could high roll it. His tab came to about $600. He gave me a thousand—keep the change.

In and out the door many times, St. Pat reflects: “I’ve been fired from Gordon Lodge 36 times—and rehired the next morning.” And if by chance some day he awakes to find the door to the Top Deck closed to him for good? “I’ll come back and be a doorman at Al’s. Just to open those doors for the people, I’ll pay him a $100 a week! Or I’ll shine shoes. I’ve got a lot of pride, but I’d do anything to be here. I’m going to live to be 93 just like my fast-talking Irish mother. The man upstairs told me. So get used to me.”

Though there was some speculation that St. Pat might be a goner for good after last year’s season, he is on the mend. Amen. Off the hootch, since last year’s celebrated Door County Bar Hopping Trolley Ride (organized by who else but the Saint himself . . . purely for the benefit of good spirits).

“I tell you, if I drank one, I had 50 J.B.’s and water. I fell asleep…They thought I was dead. / thought l was dead! I don’t want to talk about health!

“The saddest time of the year coming up for me. The end of the season. The last two nights here. I miss the customers. Even the ones I don’t like! People drift in and out, ‘So long, St. Pat. See you next year.’ Next year! I mean, who knows? Who knows?”

One version of the end, according to St. Patrick: “We will all be greeted by a green police unit, for Sheriff Baldy will have St. Peter’s job. And for those who behaved— a clear path on clouds 42 and 57. I prefer 57.

“I will definitely be buried in Door County, and I hope the good people here will hold an Irish Wake Roast for me—with me in attendance, of course—and provide a shaded lot in a Catholic cemetery.

“And on my tombstone have it writ: He Carried His Life Savings In His Front Pocket To The End.”

[From DOOR TO DOOR, Ellis Press, 1985.]

Note: St. Pat requested that his ashes be scattered in Door County. There will be a gathering of friends this fall.

the writer, Coyote, Lovta DuMore X (the writer’s secretary) and St. Patrick, drawing by Charles Peterson—from CHRONICLES OF A RURAL JOURNALIST IN AMERICA, by Norbert Blei, Samizdat Press, 1990.





norbert blei | six found-poems in the words and paintings of andrew wyeth

10 04 2009

Poetry Dispatch No. 276 | April 9, 2009

LOST & FOUND

Six Found-Poems in the Words and Paintings of Andrew Wyeth

We have all seen and discovered poems before we ever read them or found the words to write them ourselves. For as long as I remember I have ‘rescued’ (found?) poems in my surroundings.

Especially poems in the city: the writ of grit; words on walls; words scratched on homemade window signs; words twisted into colorful tubes lighting up the night skies, morphing into a mix of watercolor puddles at your feet in the glowing, wet streets; cryptic words and images chalked on concrete sidewalks by children, the truly legitimate artists of the world—ah, but for the moment.

For as long as I remember, I have communed with art and artists on every level. Brought things out-into-the-open within myself, outside myself. If ‘going-to-church’ had any meaning and effect upon me as a child, it was the glitter of gold and silver chalices; the sheen of sacred vestments, vigil candles flickering in ruby light; stained glass windows romancing the morning and evening light; the blue of the statuesque Blessed Virgin and blood-red robe of Christ, the Sacred Heart arm and hand outstretched to the multitudes; statues draped in purple during Lent. And the greatest graphic novel in the world which arrested a child’s wandering eyes when candles, chants, bells and incense lifted you toward being/not being there…that life everlasting medieval mural showing the way (for Mexican muralists and New York graffiti artists to come)…the journey, depicted along both walls of church, santuario, and cathedral: The Stations of the Cross. Lost and found. THIS way–>

Among my closest artist-friends in my lifetime, I have always seen ‘the writer’ (the poet), “the word” in the paint. Even when some never saw it, some refused to consider it. Or, in the case of my friend, Emmett Johns, we seemed mutually aware of what we held in hand, which I longed to capture (for his sake, my sake and others) in a book: I THOUGHT YOU WERE THE PICTURE, 1996, limited edition, 500 copies, Cross+Roads Press, #6. (Sold Out). The idea coming together after my seeing/reading stacks of his sketchbooks one winter, delighting in their richness of line, their sense of story, self-analysis, perception … everything down-on-paper as you see it, in the artists own words and images..

I experienced somewhat the same discovery recently going through books about Andrew Wyeth’s life and works. (See previous Poetry Dispatches –Wyeth & Peterson–at www.poetrydispatch.wordpress.com). I saw the simple poetry of Wyeth’s own words whenever he spoke about what he saw, felt. How it all came together in painting. His life as art. His art as life.– Norbert Blei

Toll Rope

Inside the church at Wylie’s Corner, Maine,
I liked going up in the belfry.
The dry quality of that church steeple,
the dried flowers,…and the sea anchor
wrapped in black crepe
from the seamen’s funerals…
totally New England.

Mill in Winter

I’m intrigued by the first moments
of a snowstorm. There’s danger in it.
You never know how it’s going to turn out.
I love the bleakness of winter and snow,
get a thrill out of the chill. God, I’ve frozen
my ass off painting snow scenes!
I’m taken by the bleakness—
not the melancholy feeling of snow.
My winter scenes…they’re not romantic.
No!
They capture that marvelous, lonely bleakness—
the quiet, the chill reality of winter.

Overflow

Look at the feeling of the lips,
the feeling of the sleeping eye,
the light that goes over the body.
Anyone who’s watched a female
form at night in that kind of light
knows that this has a strong female smell to it.
This picture—and most of the Helga pictures—
are too real for some people. You have to feel
deeply to do this kind of thing. You can’t
conjure it up, There’s a penetrating and throbbing
sexual feeling in all of the Helga pictures. I felt
the country, the house, Germany, and the dreamy,
moist, rich female smell—the whole thing.
Wholesome…fresh…really American.

Open House

…a house on a back road in Maine
where horses were rented out to ride.
I took the nurse who was taking care of me,
after I had my hip operation…she loved to ride.
..a foggy day…the house was gray, with all these
horses—one even stuck inside the house,
sticking his head out the window. The owner had a
daughter who kept horses, and he told me,
“She’s got a few boards missing in the attic.”

Love in the Afternoon

I was looking out the window in the Mill…
I go to that window and open it in the morning,
close it in the evening.
I wanted again that tawny feeling of winter
and grasses matted… I was taken by the feeling
of almost falling out of that window.
I didn’t want a frame around it.
I didn’t want a feeling of the inside of the room…
I wanted the feeling of pushing this windowpane out
and letting in the air and that you’re just there
for a second.

Untitled

I

love

white

things.

Oh,

I

love

white.

[SOURCES: ANDREW WYETH Autobiography, introduction by Thomas Hoving, Konecky & Konecky, 1995, $50. ANDREW WYETH, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Introduction by David McCord; Selection by Frederick A. Sweet]





readers respond | wyeth & peterson

4 04 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 178 | April 4, 2009

READERS RESPOND:

Wyeth & Peterson, THE LOCAL ARTIST

#177 NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND

Editor’s Note: One of the immediate pleasures in writing to various websites is the work itself. Some of it comes easy. But most of it requires considerable time, thought, reading, research…and finally the act of putting it all together so that it will mean something, register in the hearts and minds of readers. Which is why the writer remains engaged at all in this habit.

Given our present age of communications (the screen you are reading from as I write) some call what I am momentarily caught in the act of doing, “blogging”–a term I intensely dislike. I call it good, old fashioned writing. I have essayed this topic before, (http://norbertblei.com/code/blog.asp?blogId=11) . And I’m sure I haven’t written the last word on the subject.

Those about to test the blogging waters for the first time sometimes ask for tips. I have none. You get into it because you believe you have something to say that matters. Given the shortage of real readers these days, given the publishing predicament for those who know in their bones they are writers who must get their words out—there are not a hell of a lot of options left to practice the trade, pursue the art. And none of this, whatever you want to call it, however you my feel about it, in any way guarantees readership.

The payback for all this (writers and ‘bloggers’) remains an indeterminate factor. Readers’ response. Reaction. (Hello, out there!) I tell you…You tell me.

The disappointments are plenty. You may end up hating what you “blogged” and put out there without thinking through. You may easily lose hours, days, weeks, putting in (up, on the screen) what you consider your very best–and hear nary one damn word from anybody. (Why the hell am I doing this?) Or you may get the most incredible response from a friend, a total stranger, readers in distant parts of the world.

Now, that’s exciting. (For me.) To be ‘in’ all those countries.

There is absolutely no accounting for, no telling how many readers may have seriously taken your words/ideas to heart—but just plain can’t, won’t. don’t respond, for reasons entirely…well, for the same reasons (many of them legitimate) you can’t, won’t, don’t respond when someone rings your bell.

I’ll leave it at that. Except to share some responses to a piece recently put together after reading about the death of American artist, Andrew Wyeth…then remembering my friend, ‘local’ artist, Charles (Chick) Peterson who lives just a few miles from me…juxtaposing these two artists, the idea of ‘local’ artist…my own fascination with ‘the ordinary’—which I “read” in the images of both these painters… and, and…well, I’m just pleased and thankful for these ‘early returns’/responses from a variety of folks I know from a little to nothing about except: three of them are writers (novelist, poet, essayist, newspaper writer—Midwest, Northwest coast); one a photographer (Florida/the Midwest); one a cantor (East Coast); and one a potter/poet, the Southwest. Such a thoughtful gathering of minds and hearts.

This makes it all worthwhile. –Norbert Blei

Thanks for this, Norb. Peterson is a marvelous artist! I recall your fine piece on him in one of the books?

Best, Aryeh

appreciate this, Norb … damn, the format in which you present things is so utterly rich…jb . [kudos to Monsieur K.]

Norb -

A wonderful piece–on Peterson & Wyeth, on familiar things as medicine, on the bleigeist.

Eric

Norbert,

Interesting thoughts on art. I would be interested in the viewpoint of your good friend Emmett Johns on the relative importance and relationship between traditional representational art and contemporary abstract art. He is, in my estimation, equally facile at both.

My personal view is that they are not mutually exclusive, nor does the recognition of quality in one diminish the validity of the other. As usual, thanks for a piece that inspires consideration.

Bill

Hi Norb,

I really enjoyed your Wyeth and Peterson story. They are two of my favorite artists. I’ve like Wyeth for years. I like so many of his paintings, but my favorite painting is “Distant Thunder.” Not sure what it is about the painting that makes it stand out more than others. I think it’s the peacefulness of the woman lying in the grass with the pine trees nearby and her dog also resting near her. I can remember times when I was picking berries and how peaceful it was to lie down in the grass out in the middle of nature, far from artificial sounds. I can just hear the sound of that distant thunder!

I have a couple books of his paintings, plus the Helga book, and also the books of Peterson’s paintings. We always have at least one of his paintings on our walls.

Hope all goes well on your side of the fence. Hope to get up your way again sometime before or after the majority of tourists descend on you.

Howard

Hi Norb-This one got my motor running.

“What we yearn for are those values that refute our materialism…simple pleasures, country people, solitude, beauty of the commonplace, nature serene…the quietude of the country…Something to comfort our spiritual blight.”

It is pretty hard to separate out the material from life which is both material and immaterial. I keep thinking the material stuff is there to remind us of the things we can’t touch even though we can feel them. Spiritual blight and too much stuff. But, I do not think of country people, solitude, nature as simple. Or maybe it is simple and I don’t know how to be.

Pictographs could communicate such urgencies before the written word evolved; a penetration of the spirit world through a direct appeal to our subconscious, art being more like music than literature (which involves the reading and thinking ).

I think that letters, words, literature, poems can certainly be as direct an appeal to our subconscious as can art. Especially well chosen words. I sometimes think/feel that there are circumstances when one word can be worth a thousand pictures. The wonderful thing about pictographs and petroglyphs is that, for the most part, we cannot translate directly what the artist may have meant. We create our own meanings, whether its pictures, music or words. We can’t help it. We often assume that the ancients who created the petroglyphs were using a symbol set that their contemporaries understood. But we don’t really know if that is so. If we agree exactly with the artist or the author, and they confirm that is exactly what was meant, the wondrous miracle of cross-referenced experiences and the same understandings has occurred.

the iconic Christina’s World is an amazing portrait of both a woman and a place. When I first saw the painting, I remember thinking of the loneliness of farm landscapes in New England, West Virginia and the Midwest, anywhere really outside the population centers, anywhere that you feel that you are the only person, literally and figuratively. And I thought that the house, a supposed place of nurturing, of family and fellowship, was so far away, symbolically unreachable from the woman’s emotional point of view. I thought that the woman’s perception of her alone-ness had felled her. When I later read about Christina Olson and her physical disability, her crawling across the fields, the painting changed for me and became a symbol of perseverance rather than desolation. The words, the reading and thinking part, changed my mind, appealed to my subconciousness about this life.

Guernica and Goya and Rothko: The abstractions of Guernica and Goya are close enough to our nightmares of war and senseless destruction to translate immediately. Rothko is just as facile at bringing me quickly to a similar sort of fugue state where I’m walking and talking on the outside but grieving about death in my heart. Then, you go back to Lascaux Cave and the drawings: marvelous running horses and oxen and mammoths and then those strange untranslatable abstract shields that make me think of Rothko’s paintings. What? Some say they are clan shields. Are Rothko’s painting not clan shields of a sort? Shadows on the cave wall? Abstract art here in the cave of the ancients too? And they supposedly did all this in the dark? Or have the flashlights disintegrated?

Representational art expressing spiritual aspiration. A sort of contradiction on the surface but then Charles Peterson paints then and now, the quick and the dead, even the ghosts of sounds and music. We are reminded of our past times, past people and places forever changed. Yes, representational art can make it easier to get there. Your thinking is guided carefully to the place of understanding. Words can get you there too. Abstract art can get you there. But you have to admit that it is interesting that we use all these visual surface clues to get us to the invisible, the non corporeal, the subconscious. How did we end up with so many surfaces? Why are we so interested in the one we can’t see at all?

Andy Warhol’s soup cans: So is the medium the message; or how far from reality can you go? Why is it we can trust, feel a level of comfort with the realists, the Wyeths, Charles Peterson, and even the abstractionists, Picasso and Rothko? They paint lifetimes and places we can recognize. On the other hand, Warhol shows you your trained reactions to things out of context. Would the Campbell’s soup can be OK if it was a ghost on a table in an old abandoned Midwestern farmhouse with the ephemeral family smiling, slurping up warm soup next to the long gone woodstove on a cold winter’s day? What if Warhol takes the screaming woman from Guernica and puts her on a soup can and labels it WAR? What if Wyeth paints the windows in the bedroom to match Rothko’s canvases. What if the Dadists write poems by cutting the words out of the newspaper, putting them in a paper bag, shaking them up, throwing them out, and recording the order as poetry? What if it takes a profoundly deaf Beethoven four years to write Missa Solemnis? Me, I’d rather eat the soup, look at the paintings and read the newspaper. But I have to keep making art and writing words.

It takes a consummate artist to bring us into the picture. The crux of the matter-not many of us actually enjoy alienation. Composition, where objects are placed, in or out of context, gives us balance, draws us in or throws us out-whichever the artist might want if good enough. We like the artists that include our lives in our perception of their works.

“They TALK a good painting.” I can remember reaching the point with my writing and my writing education, where I became disgusted with words. Writing became just a snobbish erudite manipulation with no truth in it. I stopped writing and began to make art. I can remember reaching the point with the pots that I decided there were enough objects taking up space in the world and went back to words as more ecologically and materialistically sound. Then I saw that the words take up invisible space in the mind that can become just as cluttered as the attic in that old farmhouse we love to look at with the ghosts paging through the old books in the abandoned library.

Ordinary life: I bought a book of Charles Peterson’s paintings a while back to give to an old friend because we had spent good times in Door County long ago and then after some 30 years had become ghosts in one another’s lives. There is a refrain that runs through Peterson’s paintings and Wyeth’s paintings and Francis Mays’ poems and your books, Norb, that keeps us turning into ourselves. Our ordinary lives-that is all we have and it’s grande. We like to be reminded of this.

“Art or illustration?” This ongoing argument is much like the one for potters, ie is it art or is it craft? The NCECA recently asked the NM Potters and Clay Artists to donate $1,000 to their proposed $100,000 conference in Santa Fe next fall for a symposium “Criticism on Contemporary Ceramics.” to address this problem again. They want to raise the ceramic arts to be the equal of the fine arts like painting. I’ll bet they use a lot of words on this one. We can’t give them $1000 but will probably have a reception and serve them some green chile or something.

Thanks for this piece. I’ve taken a long lunch break from working on a big old pot, played with visions and words, and now I’m ready to go back to moving the clay around with my fingers. I don’t know where art comes from but I’m glad it is here. But you know that.-Kris









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