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Reading #13 – 4/10/2018 – Eliza Callard and Christine Campbell

Last night I got to hear fine work from both poets. In both cases, Eliza and Christine used techniques from other genres to augment their work, and I think they worked very well. Genres and the boundaries between them are arbitrary, and artists often compose their best work when they attempt to redefine or alter these boundaries.

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Reading #12 – 4/4/2018 – Raquel Salas Rivera

A good crowd turned out to see the Poet Laureate of Philadelphia Raquel Salas Rivera be interviewed by Sean Lynch and share some poems. A lot of Rivera’s work dealt with class and inequality, and it was truly a moving and inspirational experience.

One of the questions Sean asked explored higher education and the elitism sometimes associated with it. It reminded me of a quote from writer Mike Rose, who says of education: “We need an orientation to instruction that provides guidance on how to determine and honor the beliefs and stories, enthusiasms, and apprehensions that students reveal.” I interpret this as saying that educators must acknowledge students’ backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge. In college, this means instructors must not focus just on the ‘one story’ of higher education but rather on honoring the many stories of members of the college community. Rivera discussed this in their response, and their work definitely showed the struggle to find one’s own story in a world that is not always supportive.

This whole event brought me back to the question I have wrestled with for years, the role of the poet or artist in society. If Pablo Picasso was right and art is ‘an instrument of war,’ then the artist has no choice but to actively involve themselves in what occurs around them. Burying your head in the sand is not an option.

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Reading #11 – 3/28/2018 – Rowan University Open Mic

This reading was one that I helped coordinate. It was an opportunity for faculty and students to get up and share their work. It unique because I got to hear from students, a set that I don’t usually hear read their work. It made me think of the amount of time that has passed since I was in their shoes, what has happened since then, and unfortunately the time I wasted. For several years I stopped writing, convinced that it was a waste of my time and effort. Maybe it is, but nevertheless I’m glad that I got back into it. I’m grateful for all the people I have met through writing and all of the memories that I have made.

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Reading #11 – 3/22/2018 – Chris Kaiser and Cole Bryson

By nightfall, the roads were almost completely devoid of snow or ice – it had been above freezing all day. We piled into the car and went out to hear Chris and Cole read. It was a very low key, relaxed, and welcoming event. Got to hear some great stuff from the featured readers and beyond.

At one point Chris mentioned that all of his poems are in some way ‘political,’ and I think the same could be said for a lot of writers. Even when we are not trying to be political or socially conscious, we can never be fully immune to our envirnment, and the things we see going on in the world. The artist is never fully removed from their surroundings.

This reading makes 4 in March. I’m gonna try to get to one more this month. While my goal of 50 is still very achieveable, I know that I am a few readings behind. In the first two months I attended 4 and 3 readings respectively. I’m shooting to get to 4 readings a month for most months, but 4 x 12 = 48,  just short of my goal, so I think I am about 3 readings ‘behind’ right now. Getting to one more in March puts me at 5 this month, and I am confident that I can catch up on the other readings as the summer sets in.

Thanks for reading!

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Reading 10 – 3/18/2018 – Eileen D’Angelo and Nina Israel Zucker

Finally – into double digits! I’m 1/5 of the way to my goal, and what a way to celebrate the milestone. Both readers were incredible, and to hear their stories was awe-inspiring.

However, It was especially nice to see and hear Eileen D’Angelo, the person who basically got me into the poetry ‘scene.’ She was the one who, when I was in college, published one of my poems in the Mad Poets’ Review. She was the one who gave me my first featured reading gig. She was also the one who led me by example through her enthusiasm, warmth, and humility, and taught me that poetry is not just about the words; it is also about creating community. After not having seen her for years, it was so great to reconnect.

I have a few more readings coming up in March, so hopefully this will allow me to get bakc on schedule. February was rough, but things are looking up!

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Reading #9 – 3/16/2018 – Ben DeVos and Kailey Tedesco

This time around, Thirty West brought two unique writers to The Big Blue Marble. This was Ben’s first reading, and he shared a short story vividly describing an encounter between roomates. Kailey shared poems dealing with witchcraft. Both of these are topics I am somewhat removed from, yet I found myself fascinated by both.

As I was sitting there, listening to Kailey and Ben read, I was thinking about the importance of hearing new voices and perspectives. I personally feel that writers need to experience things in order to enrich their own work, but I think part of that includes encountering voices outside of what you are familiar with, seeing what inspires them, and learning from their craft. I like to think of it as compiling a tool box – the more tools we have, the more things we can do, and the better we are for it. This reading was definitely enriching, and I thank all those who participated.

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Reading #8 – 3/13/2018 – Cole Bryson, Sean Lynch, and Lamont Steptoe

February was pretty rough. Due to life, I only got out to 3 readings and was not overly inspired to write or do much with writing. March, however, is shaping up to be quite different. Especially in the latter half.

Tonight, I went Barnaby’s in West Chester to see the above poets. These readings will be a little different for me this year – since I am helping to organize them, I’m seeing them from a different perspective now. I even had the privilege of picking up Lamont Steptoe, one of the poets who truly inspired me, from the train.

A fun and inspiring event, with some incisive poetry and performance. It was definitely worth the effort.

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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!