During a week of prize-giving-- not the Olympics or Grammies, but the Pulitzers… I begin to think about what it is writers do, about what sort of literary cream rises to the top in this era of digital hocus-pocus. Undoubtedly there is traditional wonderful work being done. This is the first time I actually knew one of the winners; he seemed to be sort of a peer, and yet now he is crowned-- he has risen, perhaps never to return.
But which comes first: the poet or the poem? Does everything that leaves the designated poet's pen become a poem? Is mediocrity the inevitable by-product of awards? So often the precious stereotype of the starving, desperate artist, awash in inspiration, drowning in passion-- it begins to peel away, to shrink beneath the satin robes of achievement.
I've been playing blues for years. For so long I had no deep respect for the tradition; I didn't 'get' it. The first time I stood beside John Lee Hooker, some epiphany came through me like a sword… the music began to rise, it told its own story-- it wrapped around and inside and quietly shook me where I stood. It was familiar, and new, and it took me with it like a train. I've sat on the laps of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, I've stood beside them and felt something real and important-- some undeniable true cry of life listened to words that rhyme with heartbeats. Does this merit a Pulitzer prize?
Last night I found myself in a neighborhood I don't often visit-- midtown east. It was flush with tourists, bus-groups and wandering families buying Starbucks and souvenirs, looking up at office buildings and passing Duane Reades and bank lobbies on wide, lit streets. Is this New York, I asked myself? Please, I wanted to urge the visitors-- this is nothing-- -these are convenience stores and real estate-- there is no city here. There is no warp and weft and living tapestry; there is no music and no poetry-- no grit and color and shouting and history.
I grew up in the myth of my city. I created my own legends, absorbed the atmosphere of the artists and writers and composers I sought out, breathed their breath and inhaled their message. I grew up wanting to create my own language and a voice with which to speak. I needed to have something to say, and I tried to dissect moments as I lived them so their content became my raw materials.
Recently I published a book of poetry. It is a nostalgic collection of memories through which I'd hoped to honor the dream of my first serious love affair, and the first person through whom I began to see a version of life that was visionary and spiritual. Of course, it could have been the psychedelics and other drugs, but there was music and original songs-- passion and a voice I will never forget. He died so young, and I recently found a cache of letters he'd written and I'd never received. I felt compelled to write-- or maybe the poems wrote themselves. I could have gone on, but I made a book… it has some truth for me, a fairly uncontrived recovery of the moments as they were revealed to me-- with some hindsight, but not too much.
I've had it on my mind to reach out to his family whom I knew very little, so long ago. Today I managed to find a brother via Facebook, explained in a message who I was, asked if I could send a book. He replied with coldness that he'd rather just 'leave it as it is'. I was not just shocked but hurt, devastated-- cried for hours… knew I'd picked the wrong brother, that he'd never convey anything to the more sensitive sisters, or anyone else… it was a dead end; I felt he'd sliced off my outstretched hand.
I often wander the city… listening to my own voice which feels sometimes like the crying woman in that Picasso mural who to me is the human 'star'. I see so many broken people and these are the ones that enter me-- the ones I take home, the ones who tell their story at night through my fingers at the keyboard, or who sing to me as I pick up my guitar.
The man who won the prize-- he'd shared some poems before the book came. They were large poems-- they had a purpose and a subject… but most of all, I realized, they were larger than the room in my apartment where he read them; they were podium poems-- a sort of speech or declaration… an 'address'. Maybe that is the secret. They were made to be heard. To be spoken. They were already famous. He is a professional.
It's taken me 35 years to call myself a musician and even there I feel unworthy. This is my work, my job. Poetry is a calling-- a process-- a verb. To call myself a poet seems premature and pretentious-- it presumes everything I write I consider some kind of 'art'. My poems-- well, they are my poems; they are voices or songs or whispers. They are as they arrive-- in their naked, broken awkward intimacy.. part of a process that weaves listening and coaxing voices from inside things. They are not sure of themselves… they are being born, they are quiet and not famous-- not podium fare or poster-ready. 'Keep your eyes on the prize' is a famous American gospel lyric. My poet friend certainly knows these words and they certainly guided him to some winning. As for me, I guess I am too busy looking down-- listening. I'm afraid I wouldn't know a prize if it hit me in the head, and I'm in some fine company here. Amen.