Poetry poster boards lying on a stage, discarded.

Personal growth and experiment can fuel cultural discovery on a community level. That discovery can be fragile, as we know from history, as political and personal agendas seek to co-opt important cultural moments to their own end. A community that works together, supports and stimulates each comrade toward positive encounters, capacities, inventions, and analysis, perhaps has a chance of surpassing such agendas.

You’re lucky to be part of a reciprocal community that maintains integrity throughout its transferences and permutations. Like, you meet your publishers by giving them a ride to a literary festival in the next state. They run a gallery/performance space named originally for a superhero, now for a cadaver. One car-ride repartee during the Arab Spring equals the beginnings of rapport. Then they hear you read. You share a new, over-the-top personae piece based on a famous rock band. You read it hunched beneath a pool-table light because you can’t see. A packed room you spent too many hours hanging out in nearly two decades prior. An email a couple weeks later, they ask if you have a manuscript. You’re of course hesitant, but you do, and you send it. Weeks pass. 

Cuarto is a poet and artist, and makes poems physically by excavating old books, trimming away segments of text, page after page, until what remains is a latticed erasure that reads as one page, yet is dimensional, sculptural. It’s compelling. (These pieces have inertia. You want to make poems that have inertia.) Cuarto is also an autodidact, painting day and night to evolve his art. He’s been an invisible regular at your Thing for years, and when you finally meet, a fondness evolves. You talk ad nauseam about poetry and art—he’s a keen reader—you invite him to join your Thing as a co-curator. 

Your Thing Spirit is rekindled, and you didn’t know it needed juice. Right off the bat you get the iconic, savvy and restless New York poet, whose performance lives up to her reputation (create art in the context of community, fearlessly). And the Nuyorican poet, who for you really opens the doors to the spaceship, takes the room on a polyrhythmic trip. Both are artists who exemplify meeting the threat of failure head-on.

Cuarto is great to work with, has tons of energy and ideas—and is also much younger. You think you perhaps are grooming Cuarto to take the reins of this happening. (You’re getting your first sense that the Community Thing can be generational. There are newer, more vibrant Things starting up (the Child-Toy Abode Thing that’s a house reading, always standing room only, the Clever Bunny Thing, or is it the Fun Bunny Thing? Community wants to be where community IS). 

Your Thing also has a dynamite next season-and-a-half.  Then Cuarto gives you complicated news. His partner is offered a dream job in Boston. He’s divided, but he must go. (Your friendship evolves, despite the distance—in fact you edit much of this while traveling to officiate their wedding.)

Super-Hero Press makes an offer. Your poet friend (the husband of poet who solicited your Thing from Oregon all those years ago) comes along for the ride (and deservingly wins an important award). They get incredible designers. Even have a tour poster made for the readings you do together. Touring is fun. So many different Community Things you have a chance to witness and take part in: the cool gallery in St. Louis, the art space in Racine, the rocking basement bar in Madison where they raffle a real mixtape. The series in Queens with flarf-collage videos at the start, where the introductions are fake. Full of levity, egalitarian. The space in Boston is fluorescent, too-bright (nowhere to mentally hide), and every seat is full. The room in Brooklyn is the size of an Airstream, standing room. The loft in Milwaukee must hold a thousand plants, and a thousand beers. The print shop/pop-up store in Detroit feels like a jazz club. The funky gift shop in Akron on a warm December evening before a blizzard. The public school in Oakland where you read with a long-lost friend. Each of these Things is alive with affinity, enthusiasm, and the gravity of established sharing. Each is tactile (while the other growing version of community is increasingly bit-mapped, maneuvered, and often oblated).

You’re still editing a magazine. It evolves materially and cooperatively. You get your poet-translator friend to co-edit a double-issue featuring Latin American writers. He’s translated poets from Chile, and is well-connected in the translation scene. Translators want to get what they’re working on OUT INTO THE WORLD, so we arrive at an impressive measure of work to select from: poets from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico. The issue is a success, evolves into a dedicated Spanish-language section in future issues. 

Magazine Director visits an art fair in Mexico City, hatches a plan for a literary festival, shakes the right money tree, and makes it real. The idea is for artists, poets, writers, and musicians from Chicago to collaborate with aforesaid creators from Mexico and create a live magazine, which will be the finale for several days of talks, readings, and performances, first during an autumn week in Chicago, then the following February in Mexico. 

You’re asked to collaborate, to work with a Chicago-based Dutch contemporary practice and performance artist, along with a poet from Distro Federal, who, based on his over 4,000 short-form social media followers, must be quite popular (he is, in fact, a really impressive poet). You’re excited because you published translations, and originals, of his work in the double-issue (also, you’ve never been to Mexico, and it’s not lost on you how unique the opportunity is). Plus, you collaborated with Contemporary Practice on a video/poem project several years prior—to great effect; she’s also exceptionally talented—you both admire and relate to her sense of social justice and creative range. You find common imagination together easily, realize there is a lot of potential for this project. Emails volley back and forth: discussion of police violence against people of color, cartel violence and the assassination of journalists, the disappearing of university students, and the systemic corruption of governments. Cheery dialogue, right? But it’s bringing you more fully into an important scope of thinking.

So, what do you do with it? What is activism in art? What are you making exactly? How are you thinking about the room? DF has written a long piece, and you write one as well, inspired by this conversation and your current work, which you half-jokingly refer to as slow poetry, given its certain durational nature. You decide to intersect the pieces as a call-and-response in English and Spanish. You and Contemporary Practice work to mine your correspondence for brief phrases, maxims, and remarks. DF translates, or intentionally mistranslates, the assembled text, which you arrange into a long poem of short stanzas, and then lay out as posters—black sans-serif on white—which you have printed, nearly 80 of them. 

On stage, there is immediately a wonderful physical and aural dynamic. DF has a reading style that’s rapid-fire, beautifully enunciated, syncopated. Your delivery grinds into it—its measured slices of silence are its own syncopation, looooong pauses between lines, which sometimes are single words. Between us on stage, Contemporary Practice holds up placards, peels them away to drop, Dylan-style. The audience eats up this third, bilingual text. It interrupts, augments, skewers, and makes for a buoyancy and alchemy you hadn’t intended, but you all welcome. Almost all these oversize documents are taken by the audience as mementos. 

In Mexico, you swap a Bridgeport art space for a museum theater. Tweak the text, and DF provides yet more translations and confusions. You lay out more poster art, find a local printer, wait for hours in a tiny hotel lobby for delivery. Have an amazing walk up Avenue Insurgentes (a central street, and the longest road in Mexico) on a Friday night, tall gringo in boots, carrying a massive package of sheets through the rush-hour jam. You think you’re running late but there’s hardly anyone there when you arrive. Somehow within five minutes of curtain there’s a din and the theater fills. The performances are unique and wonderful. A momentous moment when Chicago Poet-Singer is introduced as a “bluesman,” sings a capella and the room is enthralled. DF gets a huge welcome when your trio arrives on stage. The timing on your creation turns out differently this time. Contemporary Practice is releasing placards long after your seesaw poem culminates. The drop from stage to floor is considerable, each signboard makes a flopping whoosh as it falls. Again, they’re taken as tokens, keepsakes.

You’ve never worked on a project of this scale, it changes how you think about and define artistic success. At the same time you’re invited to participate in an ekphrasis festival curated by a constructed space-and-furniture-form artist; and a black ritual, mythmaking poetics-and-collage artist. They muster a very talented program—all the major city museums participate. You luck out, you think, by being assigned to work with the Very Large Art Museum. Their extensive postwar and contemporary collection will be fun to play with. You light into it, spend a month of long lunches, scout paintings, sculpture, video, take notes, boil down, a list of eight, then four. The commitment is for two performances, one from the working draft in November, then a final show of the finished work the following April. Man, you’re busy. And it’s great—the opportunity to emerge from a post-book creative funk. (Also, the you’re-feeling-quite-crushed-by-your-day-job-funk.)

Good things happen when you contribute.

For a couple of years prior, everything you write sounds like something you’ve already done, but flatter. The words come handily, but you’re not inspired. You aren’t taking chances, so you feel lucky chance has now found you. During research (these projects happen simultaneously, roughly) you assign yourself a summer project: write a manuscript of one-word poems. These are, of course, heavily influenced by the poet who famously made a poem by misspelling a single word, but you try to put your own spin on it—repeated suffixes and prefixes—something like a Doppler effect, or a dubby echo chamber. For a while they’re fun, and demanding (sometimes you just need to move the pen).  You’ve worked in a minimal way before, but not for a long time, and it requires exacting concentration . . . and a (dark) sense of humor. You wind up with a sheaf that winds up in a drawer. Only one other pair of eyes sees the work: AFTAFTERMATHATH.

When you tell the museum envoy your selection, Envoy informs you that 100% of the contemporary collection will be temporarily shelved come Spring to make room for a major exhibition by the sculptor-trickster from LA. You mean you’re taking down the entire museum? Envoy tells you of a small postwar gallery that will remain intact (the idea is that you’ll do the final performance BY THE ARTWORK) on the top floor. You hustle to check it out—your choice of artwork is due to the festival curators, like, immediately. The gallery Envoy steers you to holds only eight pieces. One is a painting by a Japanese artist you’ve never heard of. It’s a new acquisition. It looks like an action painting—an explosion of fire and blood. You sign on with this work, go to do your homework. Envoy provides a tiny packet of notes amounting to a few hundred words, but otherwise there is precious little information to be found, about the piece or the artist. But the few facts stand out: comes of age as WWII ends, is classically trained, joins a radical postwar artist group, becomes a performance artist, wrestles with a pit of wet concrete for a day (commentary on trying to make malleable cultural rigidity?), and eventually creates a performance involving a canvas stretched over a stage, himself hanging in the air like a pendulum. He vacillates while grabbing paint with his toes, brushing with his feet. This becomes his studio practice. Beyond that it’s largely crickets. Later in life he eschews possessions, becomes a Buddhist monk (and still makes art).

There’s violence in the paint. You try to conceptualize intensely, but still, you need more to go on. You research the horror fallout of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the prevailing politics of the era. 

(Also, Eric Garner is strangled to death on camera by New York City Police for selling loosies. What the fuck? Where is the language for this latest murder in a long history of knock-down killings?)

The working performance is in a lecture hall in the belly of the museum; you leave the piece largely unedited. Sharing your bill is a poet you admire greatly, and who performs sometimes as an alter-ego, in costume, as a hip-hop deejay (in fact, her final performance for this is not a reading, rather a dance party). She chooses as her subject the most beautiful windows you’ve ever seen—representations of freedom, diversity, and hope. Your first draft is over 14,000 words—an attempt to conjure a spirit body—a human place that can give you answers to a world bent on destruction. Envoy is incredibly helpful and attentive throughout your process, but seems skeptical about you as an artist, can’t hide surprise when you say your piece will run at least 20 minutes, easily. Still, Envoy provides a succinct, informative introduction of the artist and painting. The work is raw and determined, more so than you’ve ever offered to an audience. It’s perpetually breaking apart, but it has shape, and an engine. 

You are emotionally involved. You imagine Pendulum like a metronome, how it takes time and dedication to evolve. Why does it take you so long to realize that a) Painter is dancing; and b) ambiguity can be a political tool, when that ambiguity defies cultural norms—and process.

Two months later, Big New York Newspaper runs a write-up on Pendulum, the art world’s “rediscovery of the moment.” The Western art world had passed on him as an acolyte of Pollock, but Pendulum’s books were found in Pollock’s studio.

You think about success. Not about rewards, but experiencing breakthroughs and invitations. Not just yours, but those offered by, or possible because of, the incredible people you’ve encountered. (You try to write a paragraph that traces a meaningful line, an arc, through these experiences, to cultivate a synopsis. But really, it’s obvious. There’s much further to go.) 

Originally Published: May 31st, 2018

Poet, editor, and reading series curator Joel Craig was born in Iowa. In his free verse poems, he uses the cadence of conversation to trace the widening wake of narrative. He is the author of the poetry collection The White House (2012), and his chapbook, Shine Tomorrow, is one of...