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Reading #7 – 2/18/2018 – Movable Beats, featuring Aaren Perry and Angelo Colavita

Part of the reason why I wanted to do this challenge was to force myself out of my comfort zone and go to new places and experience new perspectives on writing. This was the first time I had attended this particular reading series, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself surrounded by many of the people who have and continue to inspire me as a writer.

As I sat there unexpectedly amongst friends, I was reminded of a lesson a martial arts instructor of mine once told me. He said if you go through life as if you know nothing, you will always learn something. It became clear to me that this reading was one of those occassions where just sitting and listening to their work, their stories, their experiences, was exactly what I needed.

Thank you for the reminder about humility.

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Reading #6 – 2/15/2018 – Josh Dale and Sarah Maria in Manayunk

I had the privilege of hosting this reading for James, who was abroad. It was an intimate reading, a nice chance to both catch up with existing connections and make new ones. The older I get the more I realize that the social element of writing is so important when deveopling and growing as a writer. To see what others are doing and to discuss our work with them makes such an impact on our ability to hone our own skills.

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Reading#5 – Lamont Steptoe, interview with Sean Lynch at Fergies

For the first reading I went to in February, my first in a couple weeks, I was truly honored and humbled to hear the words and poems of Lamont Steptoe. Lamont has been an inspiration to me from the time I was a college student. Hearing his work then had a huge impact on me. It wasn’t until I heard his work that I truly understood privilege and oppression, the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in society. He changed my whole view on what art could be.

I could’ve sat there and listened to him for hours. As I was sitting there, I was thinking about the artist (or poet) and their role in society. Its a complex one. We tend to think that the artist reflects society, that they share what they see and feel, and people in turn use them to deal with the various things that occur. True. However, there’s a reason why Socrates wanted to throw the artists out of his Republic. Sitting there, listening to both Lamont and Sean, I saw that artists can be something more. If we are limiting ourselves to being mirrors, we are limiting our potential.

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Reading #3 – 1/19/2018 – Scott Laudati and Amber Renee

Last night I got to hear two great performances at the Big Blue Marble. It was the second time in a week I had heard/seen Amber perform, and once again it was great. And Scott, who came from NY to read, shared some awesome work with us.

I also had bit of a surprise. I was asked to read as a ‘featured’ reader, and for once I was prepared. It was kinda cool to be picked out to read like that, and I thank Josh Dale for the opportunity. Cool venue, cool event!

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2018 50-Reading Challenge

2017 was an exciting year for me in terms of writing and poetry, and I’m looking to make 2018 even better. One of the things that I am looking to do is to get to as many readings as I can.

I’m pretty happy with how many I attended last year. I was able to get to about 2-4 readings a month, but I was inconsistent. So, this year I am challenging myself. I plan to attend no less than 50 readings in 2018. considering that there are 52 weeks in a year. This means that I will have to average almost a reading a week, and it means that most months I will need to go to at least 4  or more readings.

Considering that I have a career, and that I have other commitments beside poetry, this is going to be difficult for me. However, I feel that, while challenging, this goal is reasonable, and I can totally do it.

In order to motivate myself (and you) to go out and do the things I (and you) love to do, I am going to keep track of how many readings I’ve been to right here and on social media. I encourage you to set your own goal. Let me know what you are planning, and keep me posted on how you are faring with it.

So far I’ve been to one reading, on January 3rd at Fergie’s so clearly I have some work to do.

Still..One down, 49 more to go!

 

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Decorating Apartments: Autonomy, Aesthetics, and Art

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Pablo Picasso:

“What do you think an artist is? …he is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”

In this quote, Picasso implies that the artist is inextricably bound to their context, that they are shaped by the events in their world, and as a result their work is a response to it. The fact that he calls the artist a ‘political being’ seems to suggest that he feels it is the artist’s responsiblity to consciously address the events around them, thus becoming more of a particpant and less of a mere observer. This quote has had a huge impact on how I view art, and my poetry has certainly been informed by Picasso’s sentiment.

While his quote has been very influential to me, I acknowledge that there seems to be a narrowness to the quote, largely because he attempts to define art itself, not just the role the artist plays. Is art only an ‘instrument of war?’ This is a tough question for me because I know the answer that I want to give. However, it taps into a larger discussion about the autonomy of art. For the purposes of this posting, I’m gonna talk about art in general and use some examples from visual art, though the implications of autonomy affect all forms of expression, including my chosen form, poetry.

Simply put, autonomy refers to the ability of art to stand on its own. According to Oxfordscholarshiponline,  “aesthetic autonomy refers to the idea that art (literature, music, visual art) belongs to a realm of its own, separate from ordinary activities and everyday concerns.” The intepretation of these ‘ordinary’ and ‘everyday’ concerns varies, but it seems that there is debate as to whether art should address social concerns. Can art merely be aesthetic and non-political, removed from context? Can art be produced with the sole purpose of decorating apartments?

There is little doubt that art CAN be these things. There has been a long history of artistic movements that prove this; from the Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th Century to the guy spray painting space-scapes at your local flea market, ‘art for art’s sake’ has long had a place in our society. Art in these categories requires skill, knowledge of material, and creativity. It also makes art a more populist endeavor. Even if you don’t have an avant garde, ground-breaking idea, even if you are not trying to make a political statement, you can still create something emotionally meaningful and aesthetically pleasing. Bob Ross made a career of this, empowering people to create and teaching them to paint while creating pretty and realistic naturescapes. In this view of art, it is divorced from concept and relies heavily on the practice and skill of the artist. It suggests that art is therefore judged by these skills, and good art is that which is aesthetically pleasing.

The question, though, is whether or not art SHOULD be these things. Picasso clearly thought not. He didn’t think that art for decoration or ‘art’s sake’ was legitimate. In his mind, it seems good art was art that pushed boundaries. It responded to society, either by addressing social issues or by challenging the definition of art itself. What made art good was its ability to break from convention and explore society and art in surprising and innovative ways.

I liken it to paradigm theory in science, developed by Thomas Kuhn and others. According to paradign theory, a new idea is offered to explain a phenomenon that couldn’t be explained by science previously. After the new idea has been offered, scientists test that idea and continue to test it through what is called ‘normal science’ until someone discovers a test that it can’t pass. Once that test has been discovered, scientists attempt to find a new idea, a new paradigm, that passes the test, and the cycle goes on. This theory has been applied to everything from business to government, and even art. The avant garde artist or writer is proposing a new idea about art, but by the time that idea has been accepted into mainstream culture, it has become ‘normal’ and ceases to be good art because it is imitating what has come before. In this vision, only the artists on the cutting edge are producing good art. Only the artists outside of the mainstream (aesthetic or political) are producing anything worth looking at.

There seems to be a strong desire for us to value the innovative artist who marries art with concept and social awareness. However, I don’t know if that is all art is or should be.  Every year I give my students an assignment in which they have to interview people and ask them what their favorite poem is and why. The vast majority of the people interviewed select poems that are or were not ground-breaking, but rather poems that held meaning for these individuals. Who am I to discredit that? Who am I to say that their emotional responses to these poems are invalid because the poems are not cutting edge?

Further, can we even have ‘cutting edge’ art without ‘normal’ art? Is it not the normal art that makes the cutting edge stand out more?

In the end, to me, it seems that limiting art and poetry to Picasso’s definition also limits who participates in experiencing and producing art. As someone who feels everyone should be encouraged to embrace their own creativity and expression, this idea does not sit as well with me as it used to. While I certainly accept Picasso’s model as valid and influential to me, I certainly don’t feel it is the only show in town.

Can art ever be truly autonomous, removed from context? Personally, I’m not so sure that it can. Even Bob Ross, in his own way, was challenging the idea that art is reserved for the elite few with specialized talents. The poet who comes to a poetry open mic and reads a poem, however personal or sentimental, is still challenging the idea that only highly skilled and popular writers should write. Seeing these as aesthetically autonomous seems to negate the statement that these acts unto themselves represent. After all, not all wars are fought on battlefields.

What role do you feel autonomy plays in art or poetry? Let me know your thoughts.

Thanks for reading!

 

Reading 4: Jan. 22 – Savannah Cooper-Ramsey and Angelo Colavita

Last night I went to my third reading in less than a week. It was sponsored by The Dead Bards of Philadelphia, at Venice Island Arts Center in Manayunk, and featured Savannah Cooper-Ramsey and Angelo Colavita, two fabulous poets.

At one point, Angelo mentioned that the group of poems he was working on dealt with love and death, and it got me thinking about art and poetry overall. We have come so far with technology and what our society calls progress. But despite how far we’ve come, art still taps into those things that fundamentally make us human, those things that we wrestle with every day. You can dress it up any way you want, but it always comes back to the human experience. Perhaps that is what keeps art relevant – if we can’t still connect to it as humans on some level, it loses it meaning or relevance.

This is probably going to be my last reading for January. I would have liked to get to one or two more, but with the holidays and the New Year, most of the readings were later in the month, and they just seemed compressed together. That’s okay though – four readings is a good start, and I feel that I am definitely on track to achieve my goal of 50 readings this year.

 

Reading #2: Fergies on Jan. 17th

Between the cold and me being tired from a couple busy days, getting to this reading was a real challenge. At about 2:30 I was sitting in my office, fantasizing about not going anywhere that night, sitting at home sipping warm coffee.

But I went, and I’m glad I did.

First of all, some of my favorite poets from the area were reading: Bob Zell, James Feichthaler, Sean Lynch, and Amber Renee. Adam Ertel was also reading, someone whose work I was not very familiar with before the reading, but I’m certainly happy that I am now familiar with it.

The reading was awesome, but I knew it would be.

At one point, as I was reading my new poem “A Fire Burns’ at the open mic, I looked out at the room. Many of the people in the crowd I knew. I realized these people knew more about me than most of my family do. I realized that I was surrounded not just by poets, but by friends. It’s one of the best feelings in the world to know that at that one moment in time you are exactly where you belong.