Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Poetry, Economics, and Backpacking.

I’m in the mood to do a little thinking out loud tonight and I find that I enjoy that most when I do it here. Knowing that all those internet bots and my one reader in South Korea (Hi South Korea Guy!) will be seeing my deep thoughts, forces me toward concision (Though you would never know it based on how long this post is!). All that is my long-wind-y way of saying that you will likely find this to be a terribly boring and self-involved post (Sorry South Korea Guy!)

Below are two “poems” that I have been futzing around with for my poetry class. I use the scare quotes there because these are barely passable as poems in my class (The second one certainly is not. I mean LOOK at it! It isn’t even a poem at all!). There are two reasons why these are barely passable:

1) The particular class I’m in seems to be geared toward the production of a specific type of poem. What I tend to consider the poem of the ‘specific image’. That’s how I think about it anyway. Poetry that is refined down to its most razor sharp images and those images are dagger-like in their deeply cutting meanings. There ain’t nothing wrong with that if it’s your thing, but it just isn’t mine. I like mess and the heat of a little chaos. I will take my writing in its rawest, most energetic mayhem, thank you very much. I prefer that to the precision diamond-cut writing any day of the week! But that’s also why I’m a terrible poet. As writers go, poets often have to be surgeons. Writers like me are more like Civil War surgeons.

That’s the first reason I’m totally going to fail my poetry class. This is the other:

2) The class is actually about “poetry as history” or “history as told through poetry”. So when all these poems we’re anguishing over get collected up into portfolios at the end of the semester, we’re supposed to be able to say, “This is the history of X”. One girl in class is writing the history of witches in America. This one guy is writing the history of acid rock. Another guy is writing a history of addiction (his brother’s). And since I’m an asshole, what did I decide I wanted to write the history of? Capitalism.

Yep. That’s how I roll.

The thing is, I have read a ton of poetry about love and heartache and memory and more heartache and loss and even more heartache, but you know what I have never read poetry about? Macroeconomics.

And I have had economics on the brain for awhile now, and I had wanted to take a poetry class (in the hopes of maybe learning to write more artful dreck for you) and I had wanted to take the particular professor, so I figured why the hell not?!

And so here we find ourselves now. Basically a month from the end of the semester and with nary an effective poem yet written about the history of Capitalism. It is almost as if what I had perceived as a mysterious lack of poetic commentary on the subject of the free market is actually due to the fact that writing poetry about economic systems is REALLY HARD! You know, actors have a saying, “Dying is easy, making people laugh is hard.”

I have it in my head right now that all that heartache in all that poetry out there in the world has a whole lot to do with the fact it is simply easier to write emotion into razor-sharp diamonds than it is to write economics into them.

After all, it is easier to be anxious and say something like: My heart vibrates slow/ a clean engine waiting./ Dark tissue and/ wet small explosions/ hum in my valves.

Then it is to be all like: Karl Marx wasn’t completely/ wrong about the wealthy./ He just didn’t foresee that/ money is the opiate/ of our democracy.

And anyway, all of those things I just wrote rhyme way too much. Rhyming seems to be frowned upon. Do not get all rhyme-y in your poetry!

So that’s why I’m totally going to fail poetry class, then fail out of school, then fail out of life, and then start living in a van down by the river with my cat.

I blame all of this on a backpacking trip, by the way. So when the police come to your house and they’re all like, “Yeah, we found a body in a van down by the river. Looks like he died of being bad at poetry. Do you know anything about it?” Then you can invite them in for tea and explain where it all began. And it all began with a backpacking trip.

Several years ago my friend Mike the Director and I both wanted to go on a vacation. We were both in the mood to just get the fuck out of town. I had recently gone through an extremely difficult break-up (which is pretty well-documented on this here blog. I’m sure y’all remember that.) and the Director had his own stuff going on (I’m too much of a narcissist to remember what his deal was at the time though. Also, it’s none of your business! Go read his blog if you wanta know: True Things). Well eventually we hit upon the idea of going kayak camping on Catalina Island (that trip is pretty well documented on this here blog as well) and since neither of us were exactly outdoorsy types previously, I did a metric shit ton of reading about how to be outdoorsy.

In the process of learning about camping and backpacking, I stumbled across the “ultralight” backpacking movement, which - in a nutshell - advocates taking as little as is reasonable with you when you go out there into nature. The reason being that it is physically easier and more enjoyable when you have ten pounds on your back instead of sixty, but also that you’re more able to participate in your own experience when you’re not obsessing about the blisters you have now because you decided to take three cast iron skillets and a camp chair with you on your hike.

Now I have still never quite gotten down to a ten pound pack on any of my subsequent adventures, but I have developed the appropriate level of anal retentiveness required to eventually get there. What was interesting though is that trolling the internet for information about ultralight - or “minimalist” - backpacking led me to stumble ass backward into the “Minimalism” movement. This is basically the same idea - get rid of all your useless shit - but applied to one’s entire life. I totally got hooked on the whole concept.

I don’t like to proselytize, so I’m not going to say too much about it (you can google it yourself after all), but minimalist living is sometimes also called “intentional living”. It isn’t a cult or anything, just the idea that maybe we don’t need so much crap in our lives. If you step back and look at all the stuff you own and ask yourself, “Do I really need all three of those crock pots?” then you’re basically on your way. Or take a look at all the stuff in your closet and really be honest with yourself about how much of it you actually wear. And if you don’t actually wear it, then get rid of it!

That’s the idea anyway. For me it has been a very slow process over about two years (I’m a whore for books and clothes after all), but it has been useful and even, dare I say, rewarding. I wouldn’t have been able to do the things I’ve done the past year - quit my job, go back to school, live in my own apartment, etc. - if I hadn’t started this minimalist thing and really evaluated my spending and my consumption of stuff. I was never a high roller by any means, but just being actively conscious of how I spent my money and why I spent my money, has been enlightening. And once I started to become aware of what I was buying versus what I actually needed, I also started to wonder about WHY the hell I owned so much stuff. And once you get into the WHY it turns into kind of a rabbit hole, or at least it did for me. I started to notice ALL THE ADS EVERYWHERE! I started to realize that you can’t watch TV or read a magazine or drive down the street without being bombarded with the message that you should BUY MORE SHIT!

But of course I knew this already. We all already know that, but when you move from knowing it as an abstraction to actually knowing it in your own daily existence, it flips a little switch someplace. I started to think a lot about the culture we live in and the economy we live in and I started to really wonder if this is the best we can do. I haven’t become a bearded Communist or anything, but I have found that I’m deeply troubled by the state of the culture at the moment. No big surprise there, right? But I think there’s more to it than just my slow descent into curmudgeonhood. It has just started to seem to me like we - Americans in particular, but not exclusively - really have conflated the ideas of happiness and consumption. This was all dawning on me while I was running an accounting department and killing myself sixty or seventy hours a week to make sure that some rich people stayed rich. I paid the bills of rich people and I found myself constantly asking, who the hell actually gives a shit how nice looking another person’s car is? I certainly don’t (You should see the beater I drive, BTW, imagine what a scab would look like if you attached it to four wheels and an axle.) I just don’t want to participate in any of that, at all. I never really have, but that was passive of me. Now I am actively and consciously opting out of the whole thing. It’s easy for me to do that: I’m single and don’t have any kids and I don’t really own shit anyway, but I’m also not trying to pass judgement on anyone else. I have just found something that works for me and which I can feel good about. I like that my clothes don’t have branding on them and I like that I’m slowly whittling my life down to just the things that bring me some bit of usefulness and happiness. Between you and me and South Korea Guy, I feel better than I did a year ago. I’m happier than I was a year ago. There are many reasons for that and this whole minimalist thing is one of them.

All of this has led me to a lot of thinking about Capitalism and I wrestle with it a lot (because I’m the sort of person who wrestles with things he has no control over nor any ideas how to fix) and I am still wrestling with it all and I thought that maybe it would be interesting to try to distill my thinking about macroeconomics down into the sharp little diamonds of poetry. So that is really why I ended up taking this poetry/history class and that is really why I am going to fail out of school and die alone (but for my cat) in a van down by the river. And that is what you should tell the cops when you invite them in for tea. You should tell them that it all started with a backpacking trip.


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