Walter

When I was a teenager, most of my friends were between two and ten years older than myself. This was largely due to two things: that I played music in bars since age fifteen and that in a small town you cling to people with common interests despite age differences.

I met Walt Sheffield when he was working at Liverpool Records, where you could find cool imports and other good music that would never have found its way to Dothan, Alabama otherwise. I was 15 and Walt was 25. I was friends with some people he was friends with, etc. Over the next 3-4 years, long after Walt left the record store, we ran into each other a lot around town and got to know each other fairly well.

I had a habit in those days of going out for walks at the crack of dawn, sometimes clear to the other side of town and back. I don’t really know why I did it. It was meditative. It helped me sort through the myriad crazy things rattling around in my teenage brain. I sometimes came across Walt at these times, in the process of a similar exercise. I came to learn that he walked the same route every morning, and that he kept a list of things he observed along the route and how they changed over time. This was part of his writing process.

Walt was working on a novel, and all I knew of it at the time was that it involved a teenage boy and there was something about the impact that rock and roll had on this boy’s life. I always suspected that Walt was mostly interested in me as a kind of research project for this character. After all, I was a teenager in a rock band. His novel was never published. As far as I know nothing he wrote was ever published.

I knew then that I also wanted to be a writer. In fact, everything I knew about Walt was something I also aspired to be. He played in bands when he was in college at the University of Georgia, and he had met members of REM. He had studied philosophy, which was also an interest of mine. Even Walt’s folksy mannerisms became elements of the kind of persona that I was then developing for myself. In short, he was my role model. Never mind that he always had rather menial jobs like waiting tables or managing the produce section of a ghetto grocery store. He was smart, and he was funny, and he lived for the sake of art. And that was what I wanted to do too.

By the time I was 17, Walt was living with a couple of guys that I also knew. One was Tommy Sorrells, who a few years before had been one of my first guitar teachers. I used to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and go hang out at their place, where we would play guitars and talk about music and writing and philosophy until the wee hours of the morning. Walt was the first person to introduce me to bands like Sonic Youth and the Replacements, who became so important to me in my own musical journey. I remember specific things he told me about writers like Walt Whitman and William S. Burroughs. I remember talking about existentialism and the beats and the early days of punk and feeling like I had been there because Walt just knew so much about everything that interested me.

After a few years, I lost contact with all those guys. But I recently was reunited with Tommy through Facebook, and I found that he ran an open mic in Tuscaloosa on Monday nights. So while I was nearby for the holidays, I made plans to drop in. We had a great time together playing music until nearly sun up just like we used to do almost 20 years ago when I last saw him. I asked him if he knew what Walt was doing these days, and he told me that Walt died in 2003 of throat cancer.

I remember walking through the mall record store with Walt once. He pointed to a poster of Michael Bolton and said, “You know–if I hadn’t met certain people in my life, and maybe if I’d never been to New York City, my hair would probably look like that now.” And I think if I had never met Walt Sheffield, my life wouldn’t look much the way it looks like now either.

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Verlaine

I’m reading Arthur Symons’ book on the symbolist movement in French literature, which is supposed to be the seminal work of criticism on that genre. It’s an area of literature in which I’m sorely ignorant, and the book illuminates the definitive elements of poems by Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire and others of whom the importance has always been a distant mystery.

The chapter on Verlaine, which I’m reading now, zeroes in on the antisocial persona taken on by the artist and puts me in mind of antisocial artists I’ve known over the years. At one time, I would have identified with it myself, but I became rather pragmatic at some point in my life, perhaps after my divorce. Beginning to make a solidly middle-class wage can do that to you I suppose.

Artists like that are hated by almost everybody during their lifetime. People, like my acquaintance CXB, who are the embodiment of that spirit in the circle of artists I know, don’t seem to be doing anything more important or interesting than the work I’m producing. And it’s hard to imagine that there will be much to show for all CXB’s misanthropy when all is said and done.

Poetry Lives at the Cloisters Diner

So much poetry that you’re inundated with in New York just sucks. I mean, it’s not really inventive or artful or even any of the things we traditionally judge poetry by, to say nothing of the fact that most people don’t have the foggiest idea how to appreciate good poetry on the rare occasions that they come across it.

Tonight, two seats down from me at the counter of the Cloisters diner, a woman was either having phone sex or talking someone out of suicide, I’m not sure which. I’d like to think both, maybe to two different people, one on the call waiting line.

When I was thirteen I started writing poetry, some of which involved suicidal fantasies.

On Poetry

I know a number of open-minded and intelligent people who claim to “hate poetry.” I think most of this group would make some exceptions for a handful of poets or at least individual poems, but their derision for the art form is nonetheless prominently pronounced.

I feel some empathy for these people, but I never considered myself one of them, even though my appreciation of poetry seems to be more and more theoretical as time goes on. Fiction is more my game. But it seems to me that if prose, esp. that prose that purports to be “literary” doesn’t contain some elements of what we’d call “poetic language,” then it’s hard to find much about it that is more rewarding than your average episode of [fill in your favorite soap-y television series here]. If we’re to admire (and practice) “poetic language” there must be some good that can come of reading (and writing) poetry itself.

Anyway, in my efforts to develop some sort of literary track record of my own, I occasionally buy a copy of some or other “literary journal,” usually one that has published or is edited by a writer whose work I already admire, in order to familiarize myself with the type of fiction that journal generally likes to publish and decide whether it would be worth the effort to send them some of my own work. In some of those journals, and one in particular that I’m thinking of, I found that said journal also published poetry in addition to fiction. I always attempt to read it, but in the great majority of cases, I can’t make heads or tails out of what the poet means to say, if anything at all, and I naturally find this frustrating.

If I had a point I was making, I’ve forgotten it now. Damn.

The M-Word

Barnacles on her flesh. Her barnacled flesh. I was thinking about poetry a short while ago, and the phrase flashed through my mind, what my subconscious suggested as an example of ‘poetic’ language.

Our choices of band names has changed now to either “The Wonky Pundits” or “The M-Word.” Most likely, it will be the latter. I like the fact that it’s meta-linguistic, and that it can be interpreted in a nearly infinite number of ways.

Because Christopher is so young, and even more so because he is naïve about so many things, I find myself feeling philosophical after encounters with him. The cowardly non-commitment of agnosticism, for instance. I don’t believe in the complete truth of any information. Total certainty of anything is simply egocentric. What I would call ‘truth’ is not absolute, but just what ‘works.’ That’s what I get from Rorty’s pragmatism. You must commit to some truths in order to navigate through life, and the improbability that anything I would be inclined to call ‘God’ existing is so great that I have no problem committing to it with all my resources.