Saturday, August 2, 2008

intellectual expansion pack


As I'm writing this, my friend Jon (Oakes, not Carver) is driving the turnpike west from NYC for a visit. It's been awhile since I've seen him, and I'm looking forward to his company. Not only is he one of my oldest (high-school) friends, but he's also one of the few with whom I can converse about artistic and literary concerns. I only hope he doesn't experience an accident like I did my last time traveling westbound on the PA turnpike. Here he is, this picture taken by me while we were in Finland during a layover on our high-school arts exchange trip to the USSR back in 1990.

I've been reading Jon Stallworthy's biography of Louis MacNeice, which I find to be a thorough recounting of the poet's life. It dovetails nicely with MacNeice's autobiographical The Strings Are False, which I read some time ago. In particular, the biography does a great job of describing MacNeice's relationship with his high-school friend, Anthony Blunt, and his influence upon MacNeice from their days at Marlborough.

(I wish I still had my copy of The Strings Are False to read alongside this biography, but I gave it away to Bob Rainey, an Irish poet who I met after reading at the Dactyl Foundation in Soho (wtf happened to the emerging poets series here btw?). He was visiting NYC from Belfast, which he told me has a wonderful poetry scene, and after hearing his poetry at Dactyl--well-read, self-effacing, and genuinely moving--I have every reason to believe this is true. When he mentioned that he'd not read MacNeice before, I gave him my copy of TSAF (which I happened to have just finished) on the spot. This was after we read at Dactyl and were drinking across the street at Toad Hall, where the three of us --myself, Bob, and his American girlfriend-- were sitting at the corner table when Mike Myers and his wife came in and sat down at the bar. It was one of a handful of celebrity sightings for me while living in NYC... I must remember to dedicate a later posting to the time I met Uma Thurman...)


Anyway, reading about the friendship between MacNeice and Blunt reminded me of my friendship with Jon in high-school. Just as MacNeice found Blunt to be an inspiration to his work, as well as a compatriot in defying the establishment (as much as a preacher's son could) in his schooldays, I found the same in Jon. Without him around--to act as a soundboard for my writing--to drive my interest into different avenues, such as art, and see how creative expression in different mediums can speak and influence one another--to provide a sense of being a part of a larger artistic community and not feel as isolated and alone in a stuck-up, rich-kids' high-school--I simply wouldn't have been the same moderately confident, moderately out-going person that left high-school for college.

Instrumental to our high-school bonding were our "intellectual expansion" sessions. This was the name Jon gave to the nights I'd stay over and we'd drink fat glasses of his step-dad's whiskey, smoke Merits out his bathroom window, and talk pure rot--really nothing very intellectual about most of our conversations; we were in high-school, and these evenings more often than not devolved into thoughts of the girls we knew who could perhaps be coaxed up to the back door of Jon's house late on a Friday night. Occasionally, though, once the effort of trying to convince girls to risk curfew in order to drink cans of Rolling Rock in Jon's bathroom proved Quixotian, we found ourselves talking about our creative endeavors, and we succeeded in convincing ourselves that these set us apart from the high-school herd. We only wore the sheep's clothing required by the school dress code; outside the fences and walls we were a roving pack of reckless artists, who emulated Bukowski and Miller and Pollack, and sought out the visceral and authentic in life while the herd chewed its cud and regurgitated the norm.

Just like Jon and I, MacNeice and Blunt kept in touch after their formative grade-school years together, though going on to different colleges-- Oxford and Cambridge, respectively. At Oxford, MacNeice went on to meet a cast of other characters who would influence his writing in even more profound ways, perhaps the most prominent of these being W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. Here is where any similarity between MacNeice's life and my own ends. While I, too, went on to meet a cast of characters in college, I would hardly describe their influence as profound in a literary sense.

At the beginning of my sophomore year at Vassar, I attempted to draw together a pack of like-minded writers by starting my own campus literary journal, "Prototype." I announced the first meeting of the journal in the college news daily. I made posters advertising the meeting that I hung outside the student center, the library, and the cafeteria on campus. These were either graffito-tagged or torn to shreds. I made new posters, only to have them vandalized or destroyed outright again. I learned through the grapevine that editors and staff members of the current, established campus literary magazine, Helicon, were responsible for these actions. As soon as I heard this, my initial discouragement became genuine satisfaction. I was already threatening the establishment; this was only the tip of the iceberg.

When I hosted the first meeting of Prototype magazine, my large, double dorm room was packed with interested students. Apparently, word of the Helicon staff's vandalism of my posters had circulated and soured many people's opinion of their magazine. They had come to check out the competition, divine its artistic mission, and see if it ascribed to their aesthetic. And this is where I lost them.

Where soda, cookies & cupcakes were served at Helicon's first meeting (I had been in attendance, my freshman year) I opted for a gallon jug of dago red wine and nothing but, served with a sleeve of styrofoam cups. When I was asked about my aesthetic by an inquisitive attendee, I pointed at the jug on my coffee table. That was it.

I had had big hopes for the meeting. Not only was I counting on meeting people like Jon to whom I'd be linked from that day on, people with whom I could share an artistic sensibility as well as a case of Piel's, but I was also hoping to meet the editorial and artistic types that would do the heavy lifting of the magazine. They'd edit, design, and layout while my cadre of like-minded writers and I would provide its raw materials in fits of inspiration. I had already naively envisioned this happening; my title was to be "founder/consluting editor." That's no typo. Consluting.

Not a single person joined me in drinking from the jug of red wine. Granted, it was a weekday afternoon, but I still expected a few people to do so. At least one. There was not one to be had, though, and perhaps there was a Wystan Auden in attendance or a Dylan Thomas (well, if Dylan had been there, he most certainly would have drank wine; he most probably would have been drunk when he arrived) but I would never know. I decided if no one else was going to drink, then I would drink for the lot of them. A large, uncomfortable silence developed around me as I stopped answering questions about the magazine and proceeded to drink a full cup of wine for each person there in attendance. The meeting ended when I started muttering to myself and dribbling red wine on my shirt. My roommate Jon (Carver, not Oakes)-- being the good roommate that he was-- joined me in drinking afterwards and hearing me out as I kept mentioning Vassar's 65/35 ratio of women-to-men and asking him if he knew just how many pussies that meant went to our college.

Until now I didn't realize it, but from that moment on, I really didn't do much writing throughout the rest of college. The little writing that I did was done in a vacuum and very little of it ever saw the light of day. In fact, for the next decade (from 1992 to 2002), I didn't bother to write much at all. Where MacNeice's writing blossomed after high-school, mine wilted. Not until after I moved to NYC for the second time in my life did I start writing again with any frequency, and I would never find myself in a pack of like-minded writers as I had once aspired to. Not until Bread Loaf, which I attended almost a year ago, did I even come close.

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