Big Bridge #10

An Open Letter to America


Chris Stroffolino


(excerpt from Radio Orphan 315-320)

…It was partially because of Sam that you finally decided to move there, he had organized a reading series at The Ichor Gallery in early 1996, which drew large audiences of painters. Painters usually didn’t come to poetry readings, but Sam, the son of the famous artist Ann Truitt, was able to pull it off. It was a new gallery, a young scene, and, while still living in Albany, you had read there with two other “up and coming” young poets Heather Ramsdell and Lisa Jarnot. Sam’s initial policy was to refuse the older, more established, “gate keeper,” poets readings, and that of course (in the great “reverse psychology” that certainly is a key to understanding the workings of New York art-world kinds of fame) just got them more interested in the “young generation” of which you were becoming an integral part, a young generation they had previously scorned. Surely the larger audiences Sam was able to attract by combining the readings with art-openings played a part in this. Soon they came begging for readings, and eventually, under pressure, Sam let them read. Soon the painters stopped coming as well. Sam told you that they had complained that not enough poets were coming to their openings so why should they come to the poetry readings. Damn, if you lived in New York you would’ve gone! For even though the art-world is generally more elitist than the rock and roll worlds you had been familiar with, at least it was something different than the poetry world, and after awhile it’s a drag to only read your poetry for other poets. What’s the point in that? Ah, if you would’ve known that that was what the poetry world was going to be, would you have gotten into it?

In New York it seemed more socially viable to consider the world of visual arts as a “sister art” to poetry than rock and roll. O’Hara and Ashbery worked extensively in the art world, as critics and curators and even collaborators on visual poem-paintings. Ditto for “second generation” New York Poets like David Shapiro and John Yau. Clark Coolidge had done a great book with Philip Guston. Bernstein was married to the painter Susan Bee. Sam was continuing a great tradition! Why were poets blowing this tremendous opportunity to work outside “the box” and check out the art world a little more? It certainly couldn’t be because poets were rejecting the elitism of the art world for the more populist idea of rock and roll. It wasn’t that these poets were collaborating much with rock and rollers. In fact, if anything, these young New York poets who frequented the Ichor Series (or The Segue Space or The Ear Inn) were at least as elitist as the artists in their idea that it’s better to create a work of art that can win over a critic, or a gallery owner, and through them, a local millionaire, or two or three, than try to make a living by playing the same song night after night for many different people. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with this elitism, but given the fact that poets shared these assumptions with the painters, it didn’t make much sense for them to refuse this possible coalition.

Maybe there was some jealousy that painters can make money off their art while poets can’t? Or maybe the poets in NYC just couldn’t make enough time to go to these art shows. In this sense, the blame could be placed squarely on the legacy of Reaganomics rather than on the poets themselves. It would certainly be the more merciful way to let the poets off the hook and claim that, in contrast to the 1950s, when Frank O’Hara and Grace Hartigan could live cheaply, by contemporary standards (even taking inflation into account), in giant, floor-length downtown lofts, without having to work much, and thus have more time to socialize with each other without sacrificing their devotion to their art, that this was simply not an option by the mid 1980s, and even less so in the mid 1990s.

But you don’t want to be guilty of “special pleading” for your generation either by making it seem like they had it easier “back in the days,” for New York was still the “toughest city” in the 1950s. Hartigan has all kinds of stories about having to count her pennies to pay the rent during those “heroic years” when New York Art was just starting to revolutionize the art scene, and before the millions started pouring in. In fact, in many ways, when the money started rolling in, Hartigan and others claim, it kind of killed that scene (sound familiar, students of Nirvana and The Seattle Scene?). Perhaps the lionization of 1950s abstractions cast a shadow over the visual artists of your generation that was roughly analogous to the way the lionization of “classic rock” had cast a shadow over indie musicians during the 80s and 90s—not as an “anxiety of influence,” but as a social and economic anxiety. You know the dynamic: Van Gogh is not appreciated during his lifetime, but in his death is very useful to help keep the living artists from being appreciated in their lifetime. Or, in poetry, Mayakovsky, is killed by Stalin only to be made the party-line standard bearer by Stalin (and any deviation from that, well, off with his or her head!). Ah, but that’s “long ago, far away, things like that don’t happen nowadays” 1

Perhaps this was the inescapable social dynamic any young artist was going to face in the 1990s, and just as you complained that Michael Davidson and others were idealizing Black Mountain at that conference in1987 in order to preclude the possibility of something at least as good as that happening now, you felt it upon your first encounters with the New York art and poetry scenes in 1996. But if you don’t want to blame the artists and poets for their defensive snobbery, it seems your only recourse is to something like a conspiracy theory. So let’s get it out of the way. Reagan and the like had seen how the high-art worlds of the 1950s, had combined with the more popular rock and roll worlds of that time, and how those social forces were responsible for the cultural renaissance of the USA during the1960s (Do you really think Brown V. The Board of Education, The Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Martin Luther King, or even Malcolm X, alone would have lead to integration or other social changes by themselves? No, without the Beats grooving to Monk, or the young white chicks screaming at James Brown’s shows, those would have meant nothing), and they, as is well documented, were scared; scared of the pill, of legalized abortion for the masses, scared of The Great Society that made Higher Education affordable to lower-class white males, women, and blacks, scared of the rising bohemian high-art or rock and roll expectations that a larger percentage of the population was having, scared of the questioning of political leaders that had culminated in protests and Nixon’s resignation, and were bent on putting an end to it. Ah, but how? Cut to Think Tank.

Aids was one way of course. If people don’t have moral censors about sex anymore, at least now they can have health fears, death fears, and since free love was such a basis for the “alternative” communities, once that’s taken away, those rascals might start seeing themselves as “private property” again, and erect walls of distrust around each other, and this could help divide the enemy. Hell, it could even kill some. Ah, but that certainly wouldn’t be enough in itself. True love, or even lust, may find a way, just as Act Up could find a way to sneak into one of the last vestiges of live TV left (we tried to get rid of most of that), the studio where The Evening News With Dan Rather is filmed, and chain themselves beneath Rather’s desk and when he comes on yell “Fight Aids, not Arabs!” before they get a chance to cut to a commercial. So, Aids certainly can’t be the only front on which this war is fought. Higher College Tuitions. Oh, that’s a good one. Even more insidious! If that can’t stop all these minorities, women, and lower-class white males from going to college, and wanting more out of life, at the very least it will make them have to take out high-interest loans, and make them, in effect, indentured servants of the clampdown! And furthermore a B.A, and maybe even an M.A, will mean less than a high school degree meant back in the 1950s. We’ve tried things like this before, and with success; remember how that amendment that gave slaves the legal status of people also gave corporations the legal status of people; yeah that was a great way to make it seem like we were freeing some while actually making even more people slaves! We can do this even better now. Oh, here’s an even better one. Raise The Price of Housing. Not only can most kiss their dreams of home-ownership goodbye, but if you raise the rents of apartments, for those who want to settle in large cities, those hotbeds of “dissent” and the “cultural elite,” people will have to work much more to pay for them, and if they’re working more, and still want to create art, they’ll have less time to organize, or even schmooze, and thus it will be “every man for himself,” just like it is for us, on Wall Street! Furthermore we can make it harder to get jobs, much less to keep them. We can create a Temp Economy in which many will have to be constantly scrambling for work. Certainly this could break the spirit of those who, for all their claims of loving social, or at least aesthetic, instability, no doubt need a modicum, a smidgeon, of private stability in their life to be able to do it. We can do this. Is it a problem that a democrat is getting re-elected to a second term as President? No! We got the Congress, and besides, he’s as much of a “great communicator” as Reagan. He’s got many fooled into believing there’s a boom going on (end of conspiracy theory).

Well, once the painters stopped showing up, and Sam found himself giving readings to the older poets, the series soon collapsed; back to the “same old same old.” Yet you thought there’d be other opportunities, just like there might be other women to sweep you off your feet, in New York City. Sam had gotten close; maybe he’d try again, or you’d find others who could learn from this, and do better.

Did you move to New York because of the glamour it promised? Not really, you were gasping for air, it was a desperate necessity, a lesser evil. You told Kevin who had already lived in 4 of its 5 boroughs that it was a “tight-fitting enemy” and how you needed that, you thought you did, and therefore did. Not so much “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere,” but as that 50s jazz song put it, “if you can’t make it there, you can’t make it anywhere.” And that’s not just one of those inversions you might be a little too perversely fond of,2 but it rang true. For obviously one of the reasons you left your hometown, and Albany, was because the kind of jobs you were good at didn’t exist there (or were extremely hard to find) it was also much weirder to be in your early 30s and single hetero male in Albany; in NYC there’d be many like you even if you couldn’t find a girl…jobs like girl, girls like jobs. Goddamn It! (Think Westerberg; though at least he could find a goddamn band!).

1Odetta does a good version of that; though if anybody’s heard Dylan’s original, please send me a copy. It’ll only take 4 minutes to hear that; I can make time, maybe over drinks?
2Ah, “I don’t know how you got diverted…” Ah, poor George, it wasn’t even his guitar that gently wept; no wonder Patti ran off with Clapton