Monday, May 15, 2017

Aughts Philadelphia: The Missing Year (2008)

I watched President Obama’s victory speech from Dirty Frank’s at 13th and Pine with a few friends. It was quiet in the bar; you could’ve heard a pin drop; and I was anticipating something, and someone, extraordinary. We all were; and when all we got was a bunch of tired, crass, generalized clichés, we made (I noticed then) a silent collective decision not to notice it. Broad Street was crazy that night— everyone was out celebrating. Aughts Philly had its levels of oddity and irony, one of which was that, for all our joie de vivre, the Republican regime in control of Washington and its attendant media juggernaut was a continual, joy-inhibiting bummer for us. Obama was supposed to deliver us into a new, politically liberated era; yet, that November night in ’08, I feared the worst— that we were looking at a different version of the same corruption and complacency, and that the change which had come to America was none at all. Obama, indeed, was perfunctory that night; and Dirty Frank’s and Broad Street were perfunctory for me, too. It was the culminating moment of my, and our, strangest Aughts year (2008); one which passed without a sense of distinction, and with a sense of Aughts Philly in general drifting out of focus and towards the sense of stalemate which ushered in the Teens. If I linger on 2008 now, it is because I am fascinated by my own inability to pin it down, define it, give it a determinate shape, the way I can all the other Aughts years, including the 2009 which followed from it.

Among other things, it is the year I came closest to actual alcoholism (thus catching up, finally, to Mike, Nick, and Jeremy); my life at Temple was so full of drudgery and thankless compromises that just to get through the nights which followed long days, I’d have to knock back several Jack and Cokes. Some of the pictures taken of me at the time show me looking uncharacteristically soggy and fish-faced.When I moved, that summer, from 21st and Race to 23rd and Arch, it was a down-sized and down-sizing move; the new flat had low ceilings, a rancid view of parking lots, and I felt claustrophobic in it. Mary and I had broken up again in late ’07; yet we couldn’t get out of each other’s pockets, and when she showed her Eden portrait of us, The Fall, at PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) that spring, I was very proud. I was also amused that the portrait seemed to suggest me on solid, balanced ground and Mary falling all over herself— that’s not how I felt. Abs was still showing on First Fridays and elsewhere, but she was off my radar at the time— I hadn’t yet noticed that she’d transformed herself into a first-rate artistic genius. She was also, I later discovered, flailing on other levels. Jeremy had disowned me completely— and when he began a reading series in ’08 called “Toiling in Obscurity” with some U of Arts foundlings, and affixed the tag-line “even our minor accomplishments are overshadowed by our utter anonymity,” I could sense there was a strange and ghastly crescendo issuing from all Philly Free School sides. Jenny Kanzler consolidated all these snafus in my conversations with her then.

When I think of my own 2008 as a complete gestalt entity, including risky affairs I had going at the time, I think of Aughts Philly starting to go cock-eyed— yet, everyone was still in the bars and in the streets, and a sense of isolation did not seem to be a problem yet. 2008 was my first adult “bridge year,” with, in it, a sense of the liminal, and of blinkered confusion. I wrote "Chimes" as I was moving that summer, in a great deal of emotional pain from the necessity of reliving my childhood, and with a sense of foreboding about what awaited me at Temple that fall; by which time, Otoliths was putting out "When You Bit..." and, as usual for that era, the reaction online was intense, while the crooked, vituperative Philly poetry scene continued to cold-shoulder me. That Philadelphia poetry world— of clowns, impostors, and henchmen— was not intriguing to me on any level. I was, as of '08, still having better poetry luck with Chicago, both online and in the flesh. One night, on returning to Logan Square from a reading in South Philly, I was mugged at gunpoint, and had my wallet stolen. My assailant actually stuck the pistol into my ribcage— yet, I had an intuition he wouldn’t shoot me. The whole year was jagged— I even (if you can believe this) saw an identifiable angel on 21st Street one July afternoon. If ’08 needs to be remembered distinctly for how non-distinct it was in the run of major Aughts Philly years, it is because the weird evanescent character it has will remain frozen forever in what we created and disseminated that year. The most important facet of ’08 for me personally is that it is the last of my Mary years— one in which we were together, at least in spirit (sometimes in flesh.) After ’08, we kept in touch, but things could never be the same again between us. To see that cycle of death and rebirth turning, with some hindsight, is as terrible and beautiful as it was to live the agonies, ecstasies, and convulsions of the first time through.

Let Us Compare Mythologies

As of the present moment (2017), and the new pages in Otoliths and The Argotist, I've begun a new writing process/gambit: to compose poems with an acknowledged, conscious sense of mythology and mythologies, and of the mythologizing process; and to do so to facilitate awareness of what happened in Philadelphia (and a few other places) in the Aughts. Ten to fifteen years hindsight had better be enough, folks; and why wait for myths to be generated around you... why not put your nose to the old grindstone and do it yourself? Candor is important here, because the Aughts had an unblemished feeling about them of cohesiveness and integrity, and I do not want that to be lost. It's also revolutionary about the ascension of Aughts Philly and its cultural scene that, on a socio-cultural and socio-historic level, the good guys in American art, those who dared to put the art first and all the subterranean attendant crap second, found a way to win against the stooges, parasites, and floozies. The Philly Free School story, it turns out, is inherently a juicy one. Mythologies spun out from the Free School do not have to deal with the egg-headed professor syndrome, the spoiled rich brat syndrome, the mafia cartel consonant syndrome, or the hands-off puritanical syndrome. The rest of the sonnets from the first round of writing Something Solid are shot through with an awareness of/ fascination with dynamic individuals who dared to live a life with hands in many games, and tactile ones.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Gratis (for Mike Land)

I swung a loop from the warehouse
space back into the Highwire itself-
throngs of hipsters milling around,
whiskey, wine disappearing from
the little island space situated near
windows picking up western sun-
light, as night descended on Cherry
Street, with an ambiance of anticipation.
When anything can happen in human
life, nothing usually does- spectacles
like this were exceptions. Avalon established
eye-contact; off we pranced to the stairwell-
Mike Land grinned lasciviously, as usual,
& polished off a beer he'd received gratis.

Shenanigans '08

Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum, ensconced
with a U of Arts semi-disciple, sees me
bust in with a brazen brunette, who
resembles me so closely she might
be my niece; we sit, begin to fight;
she decides she wants red wine;
Mary H is standing across Pine
Street, spying on us; we leave; Mary
follows us; Jeremy, as is his wont, can
only pine for the poems he wrote in
the 90s at Villanova, that he meant
something then; we get the red wine;
Mary positions herself caddy-corner
the liquor store window; we walk past-

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The End Of Our Troils

I've been giving a good amount of thought to the cultural chiasmus I perceive to be subsistent between the twentieth and twenty-first century. I've come to some radical conclusions- one is that, to make a long story short, the issue of carnality (fucking, sex) weighs, in the balance of things, for us (Philly Free School) against the show biz pros of the moribund regimes. My surmise is that, as is not generally known, rock and movie stars, and the wide range of fronts for dope deals and other illicit businesses both in Hollywood and in American society generally, were and are not allowed to establish or maintain fulfilling sex lives. Babies (including myself) are brought into the world in covert/illicit fashion; and those allowed to create an illusionistic simulacrum of sexuality/fertility on film or onstage are forced to be thwarted against personally engaging in much sexualized outward behavior. Were PFS a bunch of stilted, asexual nerds, and the family we were born out of full of bona fide players, fucking a blue streak in different directions, we would have a substantial problem, no matter how high or "haute" our art was. But, as histories become generally known, and it is seen and internalized that both the fucking and the art are on our side (not to mention the good looks, sans make-up/ornamentation), the cultural twenty-first really will chew up the lame-duck portion of the twentieth and spit it out again.

What Mary, Abby, and I had going for a while was a form/manner of "troilism." What happened between the three of us was rather devilish, but the entire series of scenes was buoyed up by a good deal of love and affection we had for each other. Leading lives unsullied by contracts with questionables, we were allowed to become emotionally and sexually entangled. Staged twentieth century cultural romances, from Scott and Zelda to John and Yoko, look stilted in comparison because, in retrospect, they were obviously just that (staged), and put in motion only to initiate and perpetuate appearances. Historians who will track the movements of PFS are not going to have to steer around a matrix of obvious, embarrassing discrepancies- both the eye-witness and documentation levels exist right there on the surface. And since Mary's portraits are both titillating and decent works of art, PFS has a way of fulfilling the sense of well-rounded and consummate artistry, on every level, which was our ideal.

Gonzo Sangfroid in Aughts Philly

One quirk which made Aughts Philly interesting is that most of the Philadelphia Renaissance players displayed a penchant for exhibitionistic behaviors, postures, and attitudes. The immediate mea culpa is branded right on my "I am as wayward as Shelley" tee-shirt, made for me by my second wife Melissa in early '01. This contradiction- a flair we all had for dramatic self-presentation, while also maintaining a stubbornly independent streak which made it seem a sell-out to us to appeal to the press to legitimize our work- fueled the collective fire of Aughts Philly, towards greater and greater demonstrations of gonzo sangfroid. Mike and I got lucky at/with the Highwire Gallery, who helped us take our PFS shows there to the highest possible level of gonzo extremity; as long as we provided the booze (including, owing to our outrageous desire to get Philly Free School audiences off, not only wine and beer but bottles of whiskey and vodka), the Highwire curators brought treats for us- twice, a functioning nitrous tank, and once, hash brownies.

Under this aegis, everyone brought their own gonzo predilections to the table- with Nick Gruberg, it had to do with a nuanced, broadly philosophical drunken professor role he liked to play. With Gruberg plumbing (or spelunking) deep into his cups, out poured discursive ramblings (Nick, remember, graduated with honors from U of Chicago) meant to establish his complete and total intellectual superiority to you, whoever you thought you were or might be. And let it not be said that Nick and Mike Land did not perform what seemed to be, after a fashion, rote routines- Nick abuses Mike; Mike knocks back a bunch of shots and leaves the table, exasperated (this often happened at McGlinchey's); Mike returns to the table, and Nick begins abusing Mike again; they both slam back more shots; Jeremy finds a way of annoying both of them, and they begin abusing him; Jeremy plays pater familias, and does his "now, now, children..." routine, which they pointedly ignore, exasperating Jeremy; by the time we hit 15th Street again, we would be so comically rambunctious that no one could remember who was abusing who, or why; then, off we'd go to somebody's house party, and more variations of the same.

Abby and Mary were rambunctious on a different level- when Mary wanted to make an impression, which she usually did, her moves were often Grace Kelly moves; its just that Mary and I were often all over each other in public, because this was Aughts Philly and that's just the way we rolled, babes. As has been said before, but bears repeating, Mary had it, where sexual magnetism was concerned- when she entered a room, gallery opening or not, she reached out to find everyone's sex buttons, and pressed them, then waited for the fireworks to start. They usually would, and did. Poor Abs was gorgeous, but tiny, and couldn't always keep up; yet few of us were unfamiliar with the sight of Abs moving in for the kill, with the right kinds of girls and boys; including me. As predicted, Mary did find my early '05 affair with Abs outrageous- but it was karma she earned. That's why, when I saw the movie "Closer," I laughed- welcome to Maryland. Was she also a complex character beyond all the seductiveness? Yes she was- or Abs and I wouldn't have bothered to endure all her shit. As for Nick Gruberg's garbage, that's one split which, by the end of the Aughts and for most of us, was unavoidable- though I know "gonzo" wasn't his whole life (he started grad school for linguistics roughly when I began with my University Fellowship at Temple), that is all, after a certain point, he would condescend to show us Aughts Philly stalwarts.

In retrospect, what was gonzo about Aughts Philly in general was how individualistic all of us were- a bunch of forces coalesced and made it possible for us to write our own rule-books and define ourselves and our self-mythologies any way we damn well pleased. We had more real freedom than any other group of artists in American history- some of it we had to fight for, some we did not. One of our freedoms was the right to be extreme, and to live dangerously- and we did both with aplomb. Had we been exposed to public-exposure fangs at a young age, much of this freedom would've been taken from us, and replaced with bogus imperatives and pointless restrictions. I am very glad and grateful Aughts Philly and Neo-Romanticism did not happen this way; as the slow-burn towards all that media biz begins now. As a final note: the affixed pic was taken at a cafe on Avenue A in Manhattan's East Village in October '05 by Amy King, the month I established PFS Post (Philly Free School Post) online.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

From A Poet In Center City ('12)


Bill Rosenblum and I are still working together intermittently. Bill lives in a studio apartment on Twenty-First Street between Chestnut and Market. It’s filthy— Bill lives like a pig. But Bill already has a primitive Pro Tools set-up, which means he can record me cheaply and (somewhat) efficiently. I have a cache of songs I wrote in the spring of ’96— folk songs, in the manner of Nick Drake, for us to record. One thing I have now also is an album on, which I can add to. Bill and I maintain our own routine— record, smoke a little pot, repeat. Bill’s infinitely distractible, and I try not to be impatient. He even gets me to watch “Adult Swim” and “Space Ghost,” as I did as a teenager. The album doesn’t do much— I have a difficult time promoting it (having “offed” myself from doing live gigs in Philly). Everything feels liminal to me except Penn— it’s the new centerpiece of my life. College Hall, Van Pelt, Bennett Hall are golden for me; and I covet the armature of an Ivy League education. As I expected, Penn only transferred two years worth of credits from Penn State. Now, in my mid-twenties, I prioritize getting my degree. Christopher, Elizabeth, Bill, and the rest know this is happening— but my life is becoming strictly compartmentalized into bits which don’t always cohere. 


There’s a poetry reading circuit in Center City which I’m now heavily involved in. Other than the old guard and Christopher, some contenders subsist who are nearly my age. D.P. Plunkett is a rising star on this circuit. He happens to be ten years older than me. D.P. is bisexual, obese, and his poetry is all rough edges and dirty jokes. He, like most of the old guard, is a historical naïf where poetry is concerned— he’s read very little pre-1960. He also, as a high-school dropout raised out in the sticks, loathes U of Penn. It seems natural that we take an instant, intense dislike to each other. His sordid history with Elizabeth and Joe ended in rancor on all sides. I spot D.P.’s big weakness— he needs to be buffeted by people (preferably poets) on all sides. D.P. has one major henchman; a bouncer/poet from Southwest Philly named Doug Winter. Whatever social games come to fruition around them are planned by Doug and D.P. together. They run a reading series out of La Tazza 108. I go sometimes with Christopher. Christopher detests them, but there aren’t many reading series in Center City which deliver the “action-quotient” we want, and this is one. We learn fast; there’s no use trying to talk with D.P. or Doug unless you’re part of their in-crowd. Neither of us is prepared to make much of an effort. Through the whole liminal period of the early Aughts, we work around scenes like this and try and establish something worthwhile, both in and out of the accepted Center City circuit.