By Rich Baiocco 02.12.07
I’m not a native of San Diego—and chances are neither are you—but I’ve lived here long enough to call it home, and long enough to take offense to Eileen Myles’ dismissive comments about San Diego’s arts scene in the City Beat cover story (Alone In San Diego, www.sdcitybeat.com/article.php?id=5298) a few weeks ago. First of all, who cares about Eileen Myles? Secondly, who cares about poetry? It’s 2007, and unless you have a band or a movie, it’s extremely difficult to make an artistic impact on society, or cultivate the type of vibrant, thriving scene that Myles was apparently looking for in San Diego. I can’t remember the last time I was so moved by a poem that I bothered to memorize it, yet I know all the words to almost every Justin Timberlake song and I don’t even really like him that much; it’s just saturation, numbers. Sure there are poetry readings here, but what usually comes out of them is less an awakening or a revolution and more a fleeting sense of community perpetuated by likeminded lonely poets desperate to be a part of something; maybe an inspiration or two, and maybe, just maybe, a good poem. And NYC, the “artist-friendly” mecca that Eileen Myles fled, is filled with so many more desperate loners per city block that a poet with even the slightest bit of hustle and enthusiasm can build a scene; but then what? It’s just numbers. It’s just poetry.
Any artist worth his or her salt in San Diego knows you need to get over yourself in this town. Yes, we’re isolated. Yes, we’re alienated. Get over it. Where does one get off expecting anyone to care that you wrote a poem, or painted some canvasses, or your band has a demo? You need to make the scene. On the resistance she’s received teaching challenging texts at UCSD Myles says, “I came here rewarded for being who I am, and this is my reward?” Big deal, you published a book. You think it stops there? Hit the pavement, press the flesh; do a reading at the Che Café. That’s your audience. UCSD has some talented artists on both sides of the desk, but it also has a lot of big buildings and big books for those artists to hide away in, and really, Academia is so far removed from having an impact on any sort of San Diego arts ‘scene’ that it’s laughable. Sure they’ll dangle a cushy professor job in front of you, and maybe a sense of entitlement, but a poet’s commitment is a lifelong struggle to stay relevant amidst one’s surroundings. For a poet in San Diego that means finding the pulse in a city whose inhabitants, as Myles suggests, just aren’t interested. But we are Ms. Myles. We are interested. Maybe we’re just not interested in someone who knocks us in the cover-story of our weekly without ever offering us anything outside of the classroom to respond to.
What I find fascinating about the Myles article is her poetic instincts to point out San Diego as a post-modern no-man’s land, and to even draw upon the beauty of its historical namesake: Saint Didacus of Alcala—a hermit and a healer. “After his death from some kind of infection, his corpse began to emit a strong, sweet fragrance. The corpse never went into rigor mortis, continued to smell sweet for years and was purported to heal those who came to pray next to it.” Says Myles, “a rotting corpse that just smells sweetly…I love that!” I couldn’t agree more, and it’s unfortunate that a poet so talented as to notice and love her city’s pure muse-like quality cannot find inspiration enough to take the ball and run with it so far as affecting an arts scene is concerned. I mean, San Diego is weird, and ironic, and doesn’t ask a single thing from you except to smell its sweet rot—and it doesn’t really ask that at all, but how beautiful is it to eat lunch at work in La Jolla and see F-18s flying overhead towards Miramar, or listen to a radio station contest where the majority of its contestants don’t even listen in to find out if they’ve won, or even the fact that someone is just now writing a response to an article published THREE WEEKS AGO? Myles also comments that it “could be possible to create another state in a place like this” and “if you can figure out how to be a poet in that—how to build a poetry scene around that—I think it would be the most post-modern poetry scene anywhere.” Well, I agree. And it’s happening (though probably not in the Gaslamp—however gritty it used to be, it’s obviously not anymore; stay modern and you’ll find the true grit.), and you can be a major player in it.
The way I see it, San Diego’s music scene contains the most potential energy for impact, and poets/writers/painters/sculptors/whatever need to ingratiate themselves into that scene to be relevant. Talk to Tim Pyles. Talk to Troy Johnson. Talk to Cat Dirt. How difficult would it be to do a reading in the Atari Lounge during an Anti-Monday League night, or do a reading at the next Golden Hills Block Party or SessionsFest 2? You’re talented as all hell, and I agree, this is your reward if you want to step up and take it. The audience is there. The youth hearts are there. The creative spirit is there. The scene is blooming and ready for people who can celebrate this city, not turn their backs on it, or condemn its offbeat casualness, or make lame half-hearted threats about moving to L.A. to get in touch with something ‘real’. Go if you need to, but don’t expect a corpse to cry for you. And wasn’t it Lou Reed—another NYC poet who made the scene around him—who said “suicides don’t need notes”? Quit knocking us and make the scene, poet!