There are some that I know that feel like I only care about money. That everything I have is for sale and nothing is sentimental. But I bought myself something last night, a book fat like a tuna can full of Jack Spicer’s poems, and as I walked out of the store with the hard covers in my hands pushing back against my grip I thought I might even build a shelf for it.
The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer.
Jack Spicer is dead, dead at 40. Dead in the 60′s. Gay in the ’50′s – an era not even our poets could be homos. A dead drunk died from drink. He wrote poems he claimed couldn’t leave San Francisco. He had an ethos outside his work, which is what makes him interesting to study.
He was a San Franciscan poet in a time when Poetry mattered. He ran a salon where Ginsberg first read “Howl”, the opening words of which I put into Archie’s mouth yesterday. My years at San Francisco State were spent looking for these figures, so I consider building a shelf in my house to hold my diploma, so to speak. The poets revealed to me. Jack Spicer’s book. A Gottfried Benn collection. Jimmy Santiago Baca’s latest.
I gave up the MFA program. Sitting in class one day I looked around at my misfit classmates:
The kid who wore suits and cowboy boots and wrote poems like automated spam content and then set them to schematics such as wiring diagrams. It became an exercise in the visual. They were poems in the least traditional, there was no meaning in the words. Textual art. A guy looking for something to do with a dead medium.
Then the guy with a great long blond mustache that busheled down his face like the men in old photos who wore top hats. He carried a naturalist’s torch lit with Buddhist incense. He went to the Sierras and counted frog populations on Spring Break. Built cabinets and surfed in the cold Northern Pacific Ocean.
An older woman who wore perfect makeup and wrote wonderful timeless poems, accessible, natural. We aren’t a goddess society. We don’t venerate our elders. What I could have learned from her I passed over in my search for hotshots and pretty girls who would let me tongue poems across their clitorides*.
There is no longer a sense of the crowd, an audience, in academic poetry. Perhaps it is the Poetry Slam movement that has created this divide. It feels gaudy to MFA students. Like Karaoke.
We were students with ideas we couldn’t place into a larger framework. We were an isolated pack in the fallout shelter. 80 students in the program. No one had the idea of presentation.
We were entrenched in a system – sitting in class rooms we’ve come to know since first grade. A chalkboard, student desks, a teacher’s desk. That is the familiar crowd we all played too. So what if a progressive grad student had us arrange desks in a circle? We read poems like piano recitals for Mom and Dad in the living room. “Very nice Johnny”. “You’ve really improved, haven’t you?”
There was no grandstanding, no one stood to read. No one picked out an outfit that matched their quatrain. We were good students. No one brought a pistol to class. Poems for poets. Girls who wore purple. Boys who wore capes. Classmates with a feather in their actual hats. Overweight girls who had stacks of journals in their closets. Gay men lamenting the decline of Greeks.
I gave up. The whole dang shebang. I didn’t want to be a slam poet either – graffitti street culture hip hop references were just another club to join. I gave up the day I looked around Maxine Chernoff’s* classroom and saw an association of Bigfoot hunters. A school studying a debunked mythos.
As I wrote tough guy poetry, (my attempts to speak like a dumb angry brutal man who might someday cry- I wanted there to be hope), as I wrote my poems I felt like a guy in a shaggy rented ape costume running in front of a camera set on a tripod out in the woods behind a high school. “This will look so real!” I told myself.
I brought poetic footage to my peers in the classroom and showed them evidence of a tough guy in the wild. Like a Bigfoot convention, like people staying up late to catch Art Bell talk to aliens on the AM radio waves, we were a congregation of already believers.
“Very good Johnny.”
My Ponzi scheme is still in action, I bought in for two years sold to a dreamy undergrad at a small profit. He’s probably sold his boxing poetry to a guy from the Midwest who thirsted for the belief San Francisco confers on it’s emigrants. He will write about hitting women.
“The ghosts the poems were written for are the ghosts of the poems.”
The dead the poems were written for are the dead poems.
I don’t know if what I said is what Spicer said. When I try to understand something, I say it a different way than its been said to me. How that helps I don’t know.
What I’m trying to say is I don’t write tough guy poetry for the Bigfoot Hunters anymore. How you’ll say that to yourself so you understand is something else I don’t know. I bought a book last night because I still believe. That much I know.
*plural of the Greek for “little hill”.
*Department head of Poetry at SFSU