He asked me if my eyes were blue. I answered "Yes," they are. They are the color given to me by my grandmothers. Hand-me down eyes, hand-me down name. Inheritance is what you make of it. Perception is the true name of the game.
If you've ever prepared for something for a long time there are two ways to feel. As I prepare for my first reading in support of my first book I find myself hopping in and along these alternating currents: one of sureness, the other of treading upon the unknown.
After he asked me the color of my eyes he told me I was ambitious. So much ambition can only mean you will experience resistance. To what? To me? Of course. I was given more than my eyes from my grandmothers. I was given a fire.
My work isn't the best. It's not the worst, either. It's what I produce because I have to. Despite all of my many faults and traits that alternate me between stability and nomadic life, between fortune and poverty I find that no folly of mine is strong enough to destroy that fire. I've looked to my stories, my poems and my photographs of the last several years. I've traced my breakdown and my buildup and all of the traumas in between. I have no problem answering people's questions about what exactly constitutes an electric bathtub. I have no problem laying that which is in my work bare for others. If it's not in my work, please, respect my privacy as a person, for no one is just an artist, but if I'm bringing it up, let's talk. But wait, how does one talk in a performance?
I watch, I listen, I learn. Two weeks ago I watched Ann Waldman perform a reading at St. Mark's Poetry project. I had to leave early but I caught the first half. Emanating words, Waldman made me a manatee and held me aloft. She brought the whole room along. Manatee/Humanity rose up inside her strong. A scavenger, I catalogued the unity of her physical and aural forms. Another master to have witnessed, another memory for me to drawn upon, for me to consume and regurgitate the way all of us do. Since Plato we've resigned ourselves to the fact that nothing is new. The beauty of the flip side is that the combinations and re-combinations of these items is infinite. Within the moment, the soul and experience, there is nothing but a connection to the infinite.
Last year a fine writer died. She was a mentor of mine, someone who really made me feel that it was OK to keep going. When she died I attended a memorial service in her honor. I listened to other truly fine writers and minds explain how they knew this woman, how she had changed their lives or how they had lived as friends, side by side. All I had were memories of a weekly class together where I cowered as best as one can around an oval table. I thought of how to slide away before I'd need to share my assignment. At the time of Nuala's death I was gripped by death, before 2008 was out I would experience loss, after loss, after loss. So there I was, struggling against all I hadn't done and the fact that I was a student without a teacher. I had lost the woman who had sealed my fate as a writer. Maybe it was time to quit.
I have wandered streets and I have wandered the landscape of my ancestors. I have inherited customs and proverbs that most people do not entertain in a world now ruled by logic and workdays that shut down for no wind and no storm. I am here to remind them. I am here to speak a voice not just my own but one that sounds in tones of unified chorus. It's genetics, it's culture. It's older than any book in existence and it's all present in this fire. So, to speak this voice how does one prepare? There are techniques. There are mirrors and there is smoke. There is distance between the writer and the word. There is the personality of personification of ideals and of universal feelings. Universal does not necessarily mean feral. It means jokes and smiles. It means all sorts of earnest guile.
Some people have the energy I have, many people don't. Lately I don't have it in great supply. Some days it is hard to get out of bed. Some days it is a struggle to care. It's a role you're given, to sit up in front of tiny coffeehouses and share your words. It's a role to publish a moving photo or to build a sculpture or to research another person and to write their biography. It's not one of scientist, holding to his empirical data. It's the foil to science and it is its muse as well. There is no way around the role of the artist and there is nothing around ambition. I want to do bigger projects. I want to spend more time reading other people's books. I want to study and to find more teachers. I want to teach myself. I want to help others do more. I want to fuel their fires with the example of my own.
Others might fight you because you fight yourself. Ambition might bring you down because you crave something they call success. Freedom is the only true success these days. We have generally less poverty and generally improved circumstances everywhere you look. Of course it's all breaking down, like a moment now frozen in amber we are most likely standing on ground that is not what we perceive it to be. Nothing is truly clean, nothing is exactly what we think of when we speak of organic. Even we as people, are already something different than we once were. We're taller, we're healthier and on average more of us than ever can read. And there are more of us than ever before. Life is as secure as a kite is tethered. To ask for more than that is to ask for too much. So, when my fire burns I remind myself that I am part of the world that is asking too much. I made this the way my ancestors made this, the way yours did, too. Collectively we go, collectively we rise and fall, like alternating currents generating some kind of infinitely colored buzz.
So, yes, I'm going to have to get up in front of a room and recite poems about everything from love to death. I'll endure the awkward moments I experience when I read a line that I would now write a little differently. Like life, work moves on and the revision is not of the exact line but of its essential re-occurrence experienced through time. Like Octavio Paz said, history is less like a line and more like a spiral. As you read you can tell I just keep stealing and stealing, from my family and now from great poets who are too dead to defend themselves. A little voice inside asks me how dare I...How do I dare? I dare because I have to, because that's my lot in life. I don't know what anyone else's lot in life might be. I don't know if they're meant to teach or meant to endure sickness or a loss in wealth. I know we share certain collective experiences that are global and which will rattle our little cages until we collectively change and progress. From my own ashes of loss came me, as I stand today, a phoenix of her own making. What I find now is an urge to encourage more, to encourage the passage from bystander to artist, from consumer or capitalist or communist to something more interesting and next level. I don't know what it is and I'm not going to lead it. I know my role and all it has to do with is sharing the fire.
So, weird as it is, I'm going to enjoy the experience of this first reading and encourage myself and others to enjoy the ride while they get in touch with their hand-me-down names and their hand-me-down eyes and lives. Our inheritance is ours and how we perceive it, is completely up to us.