Poetry at The Gold Mine, September 13, 2012
(for Megan Burns, Bill Lavender and Dave Brinks)
If events started on time at 8:00 p.m., people would die from toxic shock. So what somebody called the “Rock Star” evening can’t start at 8:00 p.m. because Jamie Bernstein the musician/poet has to tune his guitar and Bill Lavender the poet who occasionally gets to be a musician has to tune his guitar and his voice and the conga player, who looks too clean-cut to be one of us, has to tune his hands to tap lightly and the audience has to tune its many ears and then wash its many throats in beer and wine and harder liquors as Dave Brinks tunes up the audio equipment (which later demonstrates it has an independent state of mind) and Michael Zell tells me he needs my email address and a willing ear hears about my two months in China whether the willing ear really wants to hear about my two months in China or not, and then I am glad Nancy Dixon got a job at Dillard University and out of the hellish situation in the wake of Bill Lavender’s being nastily fired as director of the UNO Press so he can now publish a lot of good work through his own Lavender, Inc. Press and feel as unburdened as I do for having retired from academic life more or less, although Danny Kerwick reminds me I have begun to look Chinese because I do teach and lecture several weeks each year until July 2014 at Central China Normal University (but my Asian connection is Choctaw not Chinese) and it’s a good thing that the opening of The Zeitgeist Chronicles is not tonight so I don’t have to miss seeing Thaddeus Conti defy Indian Summer by wearing a winter scarf as he walks to the bar to begin making Thaddeus Conti drawings or miss Dave Brinks telling me how he has resolved a touchy problem regarding Eastern European poetry or miss giving the peace sign to Dennis Formento who sits like a witnessing Time Lord out of Doctor Who or miss promising to give Jimmy Ross a new birthday poem next week when he climbs up one more rung on the ladder of senior citizenship (but I forgot I’ll be in Kansas when he climbs) or miss the pleasure and profit of a “Rock Star” event. Yes, you see, Faulkner had to be drunk to write a decent sentence.
This is a splinter of the poetry scene in New Orleans in 2012. The evening will be a series of alternations. Bill reads in a straight ahead no chaser voice from Transfixions as Jamie invents appropriate music behind Bill’s voice, and Bill will play later behind Jamie’s spoken words. Jamie plays flute sotto voce as Bill lets flow a scatological satire “You Work Hard” about the loyal pigs at the University of New Orleans ---Bill’s guitar grinds out an angry music as harsh as the treatment he suffered and some woman up front proclaims with glee “Yes, fuck UNO.” I think maybe you really don’t want to do that. That you might remember UNO houses the Marcus B. Christian Papers, a treasure trove, in the Earl K. Long Library. That you might out of empathy with Bill detest the pigs but not do what the radical Islamists are doing in destroying the written history of Mali. Besides, the woman’s remark lacks originality as if she got the words from a guidebook on correct gliberal behavior. Go visit Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd. Bill is exploiting the aesthetics of the vulgar, of utter disgust, and I am hearing the family resemblance with the anger of some Black Arts/Black Aesthetic poetry, although that anger came from a different place and time. I am thinking people in the audience are relating Bill to Ginsberg’s “Howl!”
Maybe I am wrong, but I know I am right about topicality and specificity of reference and the kind of knowledge you have to bring to appreciation of a topical poem. So, a decade down the line Bill’s poem will function as a memory rather than an immediacy. But at this moment you have to know George Orwell, Ishmael Reed, and the history of corruption and racism in Louisiana ---the whole background story—to appreciate how Bill is transforming the conventions of dross into gold, being the satiric alchemist.
What Bill pulled up from the cesspool is offset by Jamie’s “My Brother Tree,” a delicate reminder that man wants to identify with Nature despite the frequency of his alienating himself from Nature and from humanity. The wretched of the earth pay a high cost to have desires. And the plot of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem leaps through my head at just the moment Bill begins to read the Maddox segment from his most recent book Memory Wing, which is the focus of the evening, since Jamie did not bring copies of Black Santa or of his new song “How Do You Get to be a Streetcar Driver?” Or perhaps my ear misheard and he sang “streetcar rider.” Either way it works and highlights the streetcar as an important item in the cultural history of New Orleans, and that history authenticates Jamie’s desire. So I am digging the triplet –stance, dance, circumstance – in Jamie’s song just as I will keep in my head Bill’s spiking refrain “Dancing Naked in a Hurricane.” Bill is so downhome, so happily mired in the blues. And poets do need rain as a reason to get naked, a reason to animal their bodies in the raw elements.
So this evening takes us back fifty years to the stars and rocks and dim glamour of the Beat Generation, assuring us the force that through the green fuse of that age drove the flower drives still the production of poetry and elevates the grit of creativity above the glitz of mechanical reproduction and pretend feeling in so much of contemporary American poetry. This evening in The Gold Mine is the genesis of my unwritten poem “America, you funked up,” which might have the refrain “But god said don’t apologize.” I am looking for the crossroad of James Joyce and Bob Kaufman and the choices jazz musicians make in the Crescent City. Truth be told, poetry in New Orleans is one of many activities that nurtures the workings of the spirit, the dark and sudden beauty of things. When all is said and halfway done, New Orleans is a multicultural poem that must not mean but be!
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.