Monday, April 14, 2014

Poems & Song Sketches; a cassette from the WE Magazine 1980s Archives

...kinda sorta liner notes...  (scroll down to the file Funkhouser calls "80s basement tapes"

fwiw, i wouldn't have ripped these, & asked you about them, if I didn't think they
were totally wonderful documentation of what you do (have been doing for a long time), & if I didn't think these should be out there! I don't think my great appreciation for them is nostalgic, either. You rock it (rocket), man!
        Christopher Funkhouser, 2014

Among the many hats that Christopher Funkhouser has worn during the late 1980s/early 1990s—that may get obscured given his later accomplishments—was the hat of scene and coalition builder; as an archivest/editor/publisher/event organizer he used his talents, skill, to help coalesce a national network of young writers and culture workers, while giving to those less privileged than him. I understood why some compared him to the work Donald Allen was doing 30 years earlier. When we first met, we bonded on a shared need to bring some “fresh air” into the literary world; a belief that we could help create a space for a wider definition of poetry that had become systematically narrowed especially during the Reagan years.

Against the backdrop of cultural signs like the “revised” 1988 Edition of Norton Anthology Of Modern Poetry (which had become much more conservative since the 1971 Anthology which included many writers from the Black Art Aesthetic for instance alongside of Yeats et al), CF and many of those he included in the category WE (including me) valued a more populist, and didactic poetry, one less exclusively beholden to the written page, but, through multi-media and dance, could help bring about a much- needed cultural revolution. We bonded initially on heroic elders like Amiri Baraka and some of the Beats, and believed in “unity in diversity” even amidst those intense aesthetic disagreements to which young writers are prone. We also shared what I considered a healthy contempt for the Poets (with a capital P) who took them selves or their Poems (whether on page or stage) too seriously and humorlessly.

CF had gone to Naropa, which I envied; for Naropa, at the time, gave some institutional sanction to many of these ethical and aesthetic goals for poetry in contrast to most M(F)A programs. It also actively encouraged its students to start their own magazines and presses and build a community (something which more M(F)A programs should require, for their own good!). I would have gone there myself had I been able to afford it. Instead, I chose Temple (as Bill Cosby put it), or Temple chose me, giving me work/study funding to be a teacher of record (not a mere TA) for freshman composition courses. While Temple was not the cultural hotbed that Naropa seemed to be from a 2,000-mile distance, and didn’t harbor the revolutionary possibilities that seemed so glamorous to this restless first-generation working-class college student (even though Temple’s advertisement claimed Black-Arts pioneer Sonia Sanchez was on the faculty of the Creative Writing program, she was not teaching classes when I was there, but rather doing cultural work through the provost’s office), it did have the advantage of being in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia had many other literary and artistic scenes that I could find common ground with, most significantly for me the scene that I became aware of through Lamont Steptoe’s amazing work with the Painted Bride Art Center. As a friend, Steptoe also became an important teacher; he not only immersed me in Philly’s strong black culture (introducing me to the great artist/poet Jerome Robinson---years later tragically gunned down while trying to keep the peace at the Wheels Of Soul clubhouse---and many others), but also arranged for performances for many writers and musicians who were prominent figures in the national Black Arts Movement (Baraka, Troupe, Baldwin, etc). He also supported my own fledgling work, and nourished my tentative firsts embracing the angry young man energy which academia was trying to channel (“Remember, Chris, Wallace Stevens didn’t publish his first book until he was 44;” I did love, and learn from Stevens and others of that ilk, but not as a be-all-and-end-all).

Steptoe gave me my first featured (and rather high-paying) reading and also introduced me to many other young writers, black, Latina, Asian, and white (some of whom have since become very well known—such as Linh Dinh, current Philly poet laureate Frank Sherlock, CA Conrad, Major Jackson among others). This, coupled with the experiences and non-accredited education I was receiving in the West Philly Punk Scene (helping to co-found Killtime Warehouse in 1988), and through radio station WKDU, was at least as valuable as the degree, and the exposure to a range of academic poetry, I was receiving at Temple. Philadelphia at this time, even with its huge cultural chip on its shoulder viz-a-viz NYC for instance, was a veritable cauldron of activity that certainly rivaled Naropa.

In this sense, I received a degree from Philly, and just like any academic institution the various factions were segregated, and often territorial. Yet I, too, strove, to put a wider coalition together, and embrace the eclectic, electric, environment and encourage a more capacious dialogue. By 1989, I myself was co-editing a magazine and coordinating various reading series to this end (in addition to performing and publishing my juvenilia in a range of magazines). Although some glossy nationals, like Mike McGonigle’s legendary punk zine Chemical Imbalance and The New York Quarterly had published my work, it was largely through Chris Funkhouser that I began to be published alongside of other younger writers nationally. A “new breed,” indeed, was starting to come together in the late 1980s.

When CF expanded his little, underground, magazine WE into the audio format (first cassette, and then CD), this combination was still very rarely attempted; it became a radical gesture almost regardless of content, because it cast a wider net, and brought many repressed things back into the possibilities of literary art beyond the standard protocols of the poetry reading and the MFA-ification of “the profession.” His extension of Baraka and The Beats' populism (rather than say Bukowski’s populism) defiantly refused the segregation of genres, and the people they imply—and could help restore poetry to a deeper sense that could save it from what had become its “self.” I wanted to be part of it….and am honored to have been (and to see him revisiting this era 25 years later).

25 years later, CF sent me an MP3 of a cassette which I must have sent him in the summer of 1989, after he had made an announcement that he was expanding his magazine WE to become a more multi-media format: not simply a printed journal, but a cassette! Back before the internet era, the cassette was still a cutting edge format, and this was indeed an exciting thing for me---since I was at the time primarily known for my live performances that combined the “straight poetry reading,” with digressive stand-up comedy, and sometimes even spirited dialogue with “hecklers.” I encouraged audiences to “heckle,” like my “spoken word” literary hero, Amiri Baraka. As performer, among the poets, Baraka alone could humble me; I knew I had a long way to go, but I admit I was somewhat cocky about my ability to work and provoke a crowd during this time.

Listening back to the MP3s of this cassette 25 years later, my first response however, was horror, embarrassment---a feeling that my cockiness was just a young man’s hubris or, as one of the early poems included herein puts it, “This guy was naïve.” Yikes! Of course, an older person shouldn’t judge one’s younger work (as is often pointed out among devotees of poetry; both Wordsworth and Whitman lost something in their repeated revisions of The Prelude and Song Of Myself from the perspective of age). And, perhaps one of the reasons I find something missing in these recordings is because that most of them lack the audience interaction that inspired and co-created my live performances; these recordings seem to be mostly me reading a collection of what at the time was some of my “greatest hits” alone in a room: barren approximations.

On this cassette, there is a mixture of the public poems written for the stage (that ‘may not hold up over repeated readings’ on the page), and other poems that were written more for the page (and the more staid page it generally implies). In addition to these poems, there are also recordings of unfinished “song sketches” played on a Casio. I was not performing these at the time in public, nor had any immediate ambition to do so; certainly music to me was much more communal, collaborative, and, at its best, holistic than poetry.

I had higher standards to live up to; and certainly had no interest or aspirations in publically becoming a “Daniel Johnston” figure. Yet I included these low-fi sloppy song sketches on this submission to CF’s WE compilation, in part because I needed to break up the monotony of the poetry reading. I guess a wanted to throw CF “the kitchen sink” as it were, on the chance that he might have some use for the music. After all, CF was a fan of Allen Ginsberg who was at the time devoting more time at his readings to performing solo with a harmonium accompaniment. And even though I personally found little aesthetic pleasure or inspiration in Ginsberg’s musical skills and abilities, I deeply respected that he was at least trying to bring music back into this genre of poetry that it had been artificially separated from by the Euro-centric American poetry tradition; whether with The Clash or others; he was a popularizer and had distinguished himself sufficiently in poetry; his songs were functional; as if part of the point was to be purposely bad, or even, ugly: I guess that’s in the ear of the beholder: some critics say “punk music” was purposely ugly; I don’t agree; I felt it as beautiful, but in a poetry context, AG was like musical flarf! (proto-flarf?)


This is the context of these compiled recordings; they were not intended to be anything like an album, but a submission. I knew I didn’t have money for a proper recording approximating the sounds I heard ‘in my head’ or the dance floor, but I was honored if any listener found them an open door to further collaboration (as CF did, when we worked on some songs together with his band when I visited him in Santa Cruz in 1991). As an album, it may just be more of a historical document, or an experimental innovation of form. Do these poems and song sketches feel like a young writer going through trial and error, trying to develop a personal system reflecting the various social scenes and aesthetics? Do they at least challenge the ethical standard that a writer needs “to find his voice”—that standard whose highest value is for one to “possess” some recognizably consistent style. (See Ron Padgett’s great old send up of that ‘literary standard’), and encourage someone else’s (probably much younger) need to honor the whole art in their work; to help create personal and cultural balance in this unbalanced culture)?

In my more celebrated (or relatively more “mature”) page-based collections of poetry between 1990 and 2005, many have found a “Stroffolino voice,” that recognizably consistent style. In the 80s, however, I didn’t; I felt a more immediate, urgent, imperative. Perhaps I was simply crying “Don’t Let Our Youth To Go Waste!” while hoping a wider, more powerful cultural coalition could be built (even in the late 1980s Philly punk scene; there were many older black R&B folks who came around, for instance; and it took me years later—after reading about punk scenes in other cities during this same time, to realize how the multi-racial, multi-generational, and multi-media art scene made Philly’s punk scene much more interesting than, say, Gilman in Berkeley)—even if our music-centered scene never made it out of Philly. Our failure—we weren’t connected to a viable record label, just as the local scene of which Steptoe was a major purveyor did not have access to a viable house literary magazine---was probably primarily economic (we couldn’t afford it), but it was also organizational. The organizers who put together performance venues had little interest in anything beyond the fleeting ecstatic hedonistic transience. Thus, young ambitious artists in it for the long haul like the brilliant filmmaker Cheryl Dunye had to leave the Philly punk scene, to find means to make their art that has relevance to a larger sector of the populace.

In my own case, once it became clear this scene wasn’t sustainable after my mother’s death, I returned to Academia, as a desperate necessity. WE Magazine had come close to providing an alternative to academia, but by 1993 both CF and I found ourselves in the same Ph.D. program. I can’t speak for him, but for me this tape brings me back to the dashed hopes many of us shared in the late 1980s, even as mass culture was making less room for the kind of art that we both wish to champion in our various ways. Hopes for a better America! In 1989, it felt like we were at least making baby-steps in the ruins, in trying to make the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ; a book CF was found of), a more permanent structure that could make academia superfluous!

Disclaimer (#3?). I make no claims that these little recordings come anywhere close to achieving such lofty ambitions. “The Artist is cursed with his artifact,” as Amiri Baraka puts it upon realization of a similar horror, in his brilliant early essay/statement on poetics, “Hunting Is Not Those Heads On The Wall.” And these little recordings, however embarrassing to the perfectionist in me, reflect the hunting that took place, off the page, off the tape even…on the streets, the community art centers, bars, galleries, record stores and radio stations we still had access to at the time, even if we couldn’t afford a proper studio or grooving rhythm section.

Aesthetically, the division of labor that I was developing between the increasingly segregated genres of music and poetry is in evidence on this “sound file” (i.e. cassette). These genres were once PANGEA, the ur-continent, but had been separated, and there was a burning human need among many people I knew to bring them in closer contact despite the genre gerrymanders and gentrifiers. Some started with music, others with poetry, but we were trying to find each other (and then find some union organizers or community-venture capitalists). I was always too repressed to be the freestyle rapper; and was amazed as a white guy that so many could do this, as if it was a natural (but also disciplined and exemplary)—but I did get to back up an MC and a DJ on trumpet at Killtime once (and I wish I had that on tape).

In the case of so-called me, poetry had become my Calling Card (or as I was fond of saying at the time, at poetry readings even, “the most sophisticated form of a personal ad”). By contrast, the music was private: there’s a song sketch here called, “Hey, Don’t See Me This Way,” which yes, if viewed as finished commodity today, can be seen as a very “Daniel Johnston”—esque piece, even though I may not have even have known who he was at the time, aside from one song maybe. 24 years later, some critics started calling me the next Daniel Johnston—and some of these recordings may set the record straight; I was doing a similar “Casiotone for the painfully alone” thing at the same time, only I didn’t consider my work finished. The cassette is a glimpse into a “hidden world,” and helped balance me from the pressures of commodified poetry. I didn’t know what I was doing with music, but I knew I didn’t know it. I did it in the spirit of aspiration off stage, in the wings, looking for collaborators….

Music was closer to the hunting; poetry was closer to the head on the wall, and Baraka was NOT saying, get rid of the artifact, or the head; it has its use, but its main use is the fact that it encourages more hunting (or as CF’s UVA classmate David Berman would ask years later, “how is the asking built into the hunting?”). The poems on this cassette were “finished” or at least “abandoned”—objects, written for specific occasions and audiences. I was less concerned with their status of great art, but asked “were they functional? Did they further a conversation, whether on the page or on the stage, whether using a pubic idiom like the “catalogue poem” (which had become largely taboo, as both the ‘avant-garde’ and ‘mainstream’ had come to react to the mid-century populist thrust and opening) or working within the confines of an interior landscape of the so-called lyric self? I had a poem in 1987, which I think WE published—“I said bye bye to the lyric “I”/ the moment she got in my fly/ but not it comes back as a force/ I probably need to pass this course”): And many of these “interior” poems on this cassette do critique the “bourgeois self” (it’s not myself I’m hating; it’s the self as a false construct slipped into our drink).

I tried all of these on for size, and even sighs (like the kind of sigh a bad pun can elicit in a reading; I embraced and encouraged that). I sacrificed some “refinement” for a broader scope (jack of more genres than most master/mistress of sub-genre dared to try, to their detriment and the detriment of our culture, in my humble opinion). This wasn’t just a phase of “apprenticeship.” Making even a flawed form public unblocks a certain energy so you can do better next time; this isn’t just “growing up in public,” but what it is to be fully alive as an artist. Even today, I may learn something from this “youthful hubris” in both forms.

The “Song sketches” are not revised; these are recordings of the first time I played them; absolutely spontaneous attempts to structure sound into a semblance of song. I turned on the tape recorder to capture them for future reference, to be revised…eventually. I believed in that dictum that poetry is a spontaneous outburst of powerful emotions….but recollected in tranquility; I believed that about music too. But “free verse” poetry was more permissive formally; more like jazz at its best.

And, of course, I was also playing piano solo improvisatons during the time that didn’t worry about becoming “songs.” Yet, I felt music most profoundly as a so-called “consumer,” especially dancing (and at the time often in a mosh-pit but also funk). I dreamed—and still dream—of creating a body of broad(pod)casted work someday that includes “jazz” (or noise rock like The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift”) alongside of a reading of a word-based literary text as even a higher art form than the “song,” but none of those were included on this cassette I made for WE. But at least the solo song catharsis was a little closer to the body; they remind me “you have to come alive in the body before you come alive in the mind.”

My poetry was much more “revised” (if not censored).  For instance, in 1989 I wrote the poem that allowed me to crack the great established literary magazine New American Writing, by appealing to a New York School playful insouciance: “We meet like shoelaces/ knotted by a need that likes to act nonchalant….” This poem opened up many doors among the national literary scene for my published work in the subsequent decade, in part because its aesthetic rejected the “first thought, best thought” notion of poetry. I was always ambivalent about that debate. My first thought—as earlier drafts of it reveal—was clearly a need that doesn’t act nonchalant. That need can be edited out---or sublimated in poetry, as long as it is not entirely absent, can be seen between the lines, such sublimation can become sublime in the highest sense possible using nothing but words.

But in these “song sketches” that need is felt firsthand without the self-editor rearing its head---for better and worse. With all these “songs,” the music came first. A nice melody; I could hear a band doing it; it fits the voice----but what are the words coming out of the voice? Are they sounds? Or do they have meaning? Maybe a line or two has meaning, I told myself. But not a meaning I would be proud of, not a meaning I would put in a poem (unless buried or framed with quotes, etc); they tell me terrible things about my “internal monologue;” they are cruel, needy, anti-social, all that crap. First feeling, worst feeling. DUMMY LYRICS.  That’s what I called them. And I wanted to be nonchalant about it! Yes, hence the poetry (or the hope that someday I’d find a band that would allow such sentiments to come off better because at least people are meeting each other while dancing to it, and don’t really care about the words until later---and by then, I will have had time to revise them to make them more socially useful! Or even find a lyricist to work with!).

The sound of the words just came pouring out. If I sang the word “Don’t” too much, I could interpret it psychologically, but maybe it was just a habitual muscle tick engraved in the soul (of the sound).---a respite from analysis. I made many cassettes during these years, and barely bothered to play them back.

I learned that it is extremely rare that great lyrics that I could stand behind and great music could come together at once. It’s probably ridiculous to even hold that as an aesthetic standard (that the song will emerge unfinished from the head of Athena or whatever), but the songs were too hot to handle; a mucking up of the ground. One thing I knew; it was better to start a song this way than coming in backwards with lyrics and then trying to come up with a melody----that felt imposed, like trickle down economics—like too many damn crusty white guy singer songwriters!

I also learned that, for me at least, when it came to music, the words didn’t matter as much as the tune, and the other non-verbal aspects, including voice. These recordings at least show hints of what my voice could be at its best. And, I remember—believe it or not---a lot of people liked the groggy warmth of my voice when I busked in Rittenhouse square with the Casio; I felt that reverberation---especially when it didn’t take long to lure a beautiful passerby’s hand toward the region of my thigh). But ultimately I had no “singer/songwriter” ambitions; I was already “solo” enough as a poet. Wuz holding out hope I’d find some BERRY GORDY to assign a role—like “Hey, you write catchy melodies, and THIS other guy writes great lyrics. Work together, in the studio, I’ll pay you enough to live on and create. You don’t even have to sing.” And, I found something a little closer to this a decade later working with Steve Malkmus and David Berman (but that’s another story)…

Yet, even with the limits of the Casio and crappy cassette recorder, the strictly non-verbal hooks of these (secret) song sketches brought balance against the dangerous tyranny of words. Listening back 25 years later, I do find it at least worth a listen (if not many listens—and have no burning need to perform the songs, or even the poems for that matter---but that’s partially the purpose of recording…so you don’t have to perform it! Ask David Berman (who was recording those songs that Drag City released in 2012 around the same time I made these recordings). They’re certainly no worse than other things I let others put out under my so-called name over the years; and they can even make me smile and laugh--though they goad me to believe, as I believed then, I---and in fact WE—can do so much better, and to keep living in these difficult times to do that; MAYBE EVEN RIGHT NOW! Thank you Chris Funkhouser….

1. “Morning After” 2:57
2. Cassio Dabble#1 2:28
3. Naïve 2:25
4. I get what you see (ah capella) 0:40
5. Why Do You Let Him? 1:57
6. To A Late Night DJ 2:25
7. Hey! Don’t See Me This Way 1:14
8. But Can You Convince The Converted? 1:22
9. Latent Bartender 2:09
10. It’s All Right 2:09 19:40

11. Overlapping Triangles 0:42
12. Dwelt On Division 1:19
13. The Poetry Of Capitalism 1:49
14. Now You’re A Mess 2:00
15. Cutting Class 0:19
16. Self Portrait As Shelley 2:40
17. Combination Wedding 1:59
18. In America The Poor Are Fat 0:47
19 Hymn Book Improv. Ditty 2:30
20. A Reduction, However Romantic, Is Still A Reduction 0:50
21. Centigrade 0:23
22. I Can’t Stop Thinking About You 1:20
23. To The Poor Who Call Themselves Rich 1:27

Chris Stroffolino, 2014

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