If Kendra Steiner Editions and my own work as poet and publisher leave any legacy, I hope that it is a can-do spirit and a demystification of poetry and the arts in general. With academic poets attempting to cloud the process with references to French literary theorists and then attaching an entire literary-criticism superstructure to their works, functioning like thorns on a rose, and with so many poets both academic and non-academic being on such an ego trip or wanting to form daisy-chain cliques to exclude you and me so they can feel special about themselves, today’s poetry scene is often its own worst enemy.
However, if you read and closely study post-WWII poetry and the arts, if you detach yourself from the media and from automatic ways of doing and thinking, if you dialogue with other writers and musicians and artists and people who live their lives as their artwork, you can do this too.
Remember the old saying that everyone who bought a Velvet Underground album in the 60s and 70s wound up forming a band? Well, in my case, in my teenage years, I bought old 60s poetry books by Paul Blackburn, Ted Berrigan, Diane Wakoski, Frank Samperi, and Robert Creeley, and I started to write. While my present job requires me to design web pages and to use Publisher, Adobe Acrobat, Photoshop, and various publishing software, I make a point of NOT using any of those with KSE product. I keep it simple and primitive with Microsoft Word, taking it to its limits. Paul Corman-Roberts hit the nail on the head in his recent piece about KSE where he said we were attempting to follow in the tradition of the 50s/60s/70s mimeo’ed homemade chapbook tradition associated with various pioneering beat and new york school writers/publishers. To make a more contemporary reference, much of my music budget goes to homemade small edition (often less than 50 copies) CDRs and cassettes from various noise/drone/electronic/psychedelic artists. They can issue whatever they want in exactly the form they want–they have total control over their art, including distribution. They can totally make real their aesthetic vision. KSE is, to my way of thinking, a literary equivalent to that movement in music. Any of you can do the same. KSE uses a $129 Dell printer and materials from standard office supply stores. The plastic sleeves in which we place the sale copies of the books are just a smaller size of the plastic sleeves available at any comic shop. Like a good neighborhood pizzaria or a mom’n'pop hardware store or meat market, KSE tries to deliver quality handmade goods without any fancy packaging or any pretentious clique-ish imprimatur. You don’t eat the brown paper bag, you eat the delicious chilaquiles tacos inside. F**k the self-serving writers’ groups and the “quality” indie presses. Let them publish each other’s works, praise each other’s works, and invite each other to their own readings—–it’s the literary equivalent of licking each other’s a-holes and then rhapsodizing about the taste.
Whatever it is that life has got you doing to survive can be the training ground for your art and can also provide you with the raw material for your art. Let me use an example chosen at random from my sordid past. Back in the mid-to-late 80s, after my first child Eric was born, up through when Kendra was born, I lived in southwestern Virginia. I usually juggled a few lousy part-time jobs and tried to take a few classes in the evening when I could. I spent a year working as a checker/bagger (and later in the produce department, although I preferred the checker position) at a Food Lion store. Remember the 20/20 expose about Food Lion selling the tainted food items, cutting the rotten parts out of meats and vegetables and then reselling them, re-coloring spoiled and discolored food items? Yes, that Food Lion. Although I was paid the minimum wage and was even forced to work periods “off the clock,” there was nothing I could do about that, so I didn’t let it get me down. Instead, I gave my focus to the many interesting people I’d meet each day. Every customer had a different array of items to purchase, and each item seemed to say so much about that person. And when I’d try to engage customers in smalltalk, each customer had something unique to say. Even if it was a cliche or a parroting back of what someone else had said, it was delivered with a unique spin and speech pattern that made it individual. Looking at and dealing with each customer, and noticing what each customer bought, was a lesson in particulars , and particulars are the tools of the poet.
Also during that period, I saw a job listing for a position as youth minister at a relatively middle-of-the-road, open-minded Protestant church. I had no background in that denomination, and although I am a spiritual person, I have never been a churchgoer or a joiner, and I reject hierarchies of authority in the spiritual realm (I feel as though I’m a member of the “priesthood of all believers”). However, the position had been open for a while, I had worked with children and teens before, and I seemed sincere, so I was offered the 20-hour-a-week position. Hey, it was better than janitorial work (in some ways, in some ways not), so I took it and stayed for a year-and-a-half. One of my jobs was to deliver the children’s sermon every other week (the alternate weeks were done by the pastor, Wayne). I would sit at the top of the stairs leading up to the altar, and the children would come and sit around me, and I would deliver an “object lesson,” where I took an object and used it as a symbol for whatever spiritual quality I was emphasizing that particular day. Each Saturday night, the night before the Sunday service, I would walk around my home looking at the items there, and thinking about how I could use a particular item as a symbol of God’s love or Jesus’s sacrifice, etc. I remember using a clock, a battery, popcorn, a belt, an apple, and an issue of TV Guide. I got to the point where I could choose ANYTHING and find parallels in it to the Gospel lessons I was hired to deliver. In fact, I challenged my wife to grab something from around the house that she thought WOULD NOT WORK for an object lesson, and I would manage to come up with the metaphors, the parallels. And I did! That was a great lesson in poetic technique, and I still use it today in everything I write and in my design of the covers and creation of cover images.
I could just as easily have chosen a thousand other life-experiences and jobs to make my example, whether it be 20 years ago or yesterday or tomorrow.
Remember the words of George Maciunas: “purge the world of bourgeois sickness—-intellectual, professional and commercialized culture….promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art, promote living-art, anti-art, promote non-art reality to be grasped by all people, not just critics, dilettantes, and professionals…anything can be art and anyone can do it.”
You do not need ANYONE’S validation!
Look at how artworks are constructed—-music, film, visual arts, poetry, sculpture, pottery, anything—-and find a way to capture that structure, that juxtaposition of elements, the grouping of contrasts, that use of color and tone, of sound and silence….find a way to apply what you see to whatever artistic discipline in which you choose to work. Practice, practice, practice. Test your product in the marketplace of ideas. Make your presence felt and become someone who can be relied upon to produce interesting work at regular intervals. Don’t kiss anyone’s rear or suck up to anyone, and you won’t “owe” anyone anything. And if you do owe anyone, payback is always a bitch!
Do what you need to do, and don’t look back.