Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Thinking about Poetry at the Folk Music Festival

On Sunday, my spouse and I went to a local folk festival. It used to be a much larger, outdoor festival, with multiple stages held over a long holiday week-end. Then that festival was essentially wrecked by several disasters--a series of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 left the park where the festival was held unusable. A series of power and money struggles left the leadership of the folk club too fragmented to regroup the festival elsewhere (at least, that's how it's been told to me).

But last year, the new leadership decided to hold a scaled down version at a local bar that's usually a country-western dance hall. Some people complained about the lingering smell of cigarettes, and it was an imperfect venue in other ways (dark, cavernous, not a wide beer selection), but it seemed to work. And so, we went to the second annual event on Sunday.

As we listened to one performer, my spouse said, "This guy was an NEA literary fellow?" It seemed hard to believe.*

I said, "Maybe his creative writing is better than his song writing. Maybe this music would seem more profound if we were stoned."

But there wasn't a chance of getting our chemistry altered legally. The bar had no microbrews, and the one bottle of Merlot they had on hand had been open God only knows how long. Yes, we've become alcohol snobs in our middle age. We, who used to mix up huge vats of almost undrinkable beverage from grain alcohol and Kool-aid (we called it PJ--was that done elsewhere or just at my small, Southern college in the mid-80's?), we now turn up our noses at swill. My spouse used to drink Milwaukee's Best beer (as my Sociology professor used to crack, "If this is Milwaukee's Best, I'd hate to taste Milwaukee's Worst!"). Now the only American beer he'll drink needs to come from some small, anti-corporate brewery.

Since I had no wine to savor, I turned my overactive mind to the music. It was quite a mix. We had some really great performers who did wonderful blues and bluegrass music. We had some earnest singer-songwriters: some who wrote good stuff (if you haven't checked out Rod MacDonald yet, you should--do it right now), and some who sang rather predictable lyrics about the loss of orange trees and overdevelopment. There were some tribute bands (one guy who covered John Denver songs and a group that keeps the work of the Weavers alive). It was an interesting mix. Everybody got half an hour to play/sing.

I asked one of the organizers if the performers got paid. They got paid barely enough to cover the gas. I guess they came because they were going to be in the area anyway--there's quite a folk music circuit, and we're on the way to some other venues. I suspect that some came hoping to sell CDs. Some are local, so what did they have to lose?

So many art forms are becoming ones we do for love and perhaps for a pittance of money. I used to write hoping that I could write my way out of my teaching job. I had a vision of a best selling novel that would be made into a movie.

But even if I'm not going to make a living from my poetry, I'm happy to be a poet. Not everything has to be transformed into dollars to make it worthwhile.

In some ways, I feel like a mystic who is still functional in the world. The normal world hears some Science story about tectonic plates and the earthquake in Haiti. The normal world shrugs. I take notes, and my mind starts to whirl away, creating a poem that has nothing to do with earthquakes, but instead thinks about the planet as a patient with arthritis.

I'm like Blake, seeing figures in the flowers. My students assume that Blake was some drug addled freak who died young in a gutter; they're amazed that he had a completely functional life as a printer and engraver, in addition to creating his mystical illuminated writing.

A modern Blake--could that be my goal? I'd better get back to my paintbrushes. Or maybe I'll be a modern Blake who works in poetry and fiber. I like having something luminous to think about, today, when I get back to work by going to a meeting about the Spring schedule that promises to be long and perhaps combative.

*I couldn't resist trying to figure out if the one performer really did get an NEA grant. He did. So have lots of other people. If you want to see your tax dollars at work, go here for the complete list of who has gotten which writing and translating awards (it's not a complete list; it's a report that was published in 2006). It's really an impressive list.

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