Fabric of Community: Prometheus in America’s Dairyland by James D. Autio
Prometheus in America’s Dairyland
by James D. Autio
Throughout my years in public school I was one of the artsy kids, meaning I was socially awkward, had more interest in art than baseball, and probably drew something once that someone’s mother had seen and thought was pretty good. Thus, my reputation was born. I discovered early in my college art career that the quality of my art was not based upon identifiable talent so much as upon talking the talk. If I could argue for the validity of painting a moody self-portrait, or using that splash of alizarin crimson that didn’t seem to really work there, I would be met with approval by the professors and the art department. So what if the art sucked? Who’s to say that my art sucked, or that I sucked (or maybe that the “art department” at the small college in northern Wisconsin sucked, though I’m sure they’re much better now)? I was learning things about art, and that’s the important point for those of you still reading who may have been wondering.
Something really important happened in Wisconsin though. I was tied up and beaten, laid on the cooling board, bleached, blanched, and wrapped in sausage casing. I had learned more than a thing or two about art history and about visionary producers of paradigm-altering creative work. I knew that I had something that my junior high school homeroom teacher had once called “talent.” There was no doubt about that. So I was a young art student at a small Wisconsin university in the eighties, spending most of my waking hours and too many sleeping hours in the studios of the art building. Each painting I produced grew in ambition and hubris. Each new canvas was going to be my masterpiece. It just had to be. By the time I quit school prior to starting my senior year, I knew the things I felt I needed to about art. There was no high paying job after graduation for a fine arts major. I thought it a better path to quit school, get a restaurant job to pay my bills, and just keep pumping out the art. That was a good idea, except for the really important thing that happened about art. My reach to produce the next masterpiece continued a short while, even as my hands were bound and I was lying half-fetal with my head pummeled. I gyrated feebly inside that casing. I was the sausage.
At our introverts’ indoctrination meeting, we were taught to spend time in self-examination looking deep within ourselves. It took me years of being a greasy restaurant cook and lying about still being an artist before I realized what I had really learned in Wisconsin. Each next artwork had to be the masterpiece, and if it failed to be the masterpiece it would prove to others that I was a total sham. I had tied my own hands in Wisconsin. In the decade after I quit school I usually told people that I was an artist cooking to pay bills, but mostly I would cook myself a hamburger and then go home to watch t.v. Secretly, I became unable to produce any more art.
A Young Man’s Heart is a Deep Ocean of Secrets
I had a girlfriend in the nineties who broke my heart. Of course I mean the 1990s and not that she was elderly. I’m sure heartbreak like I experienced probably has never happened to a young person before. One day I thought I’d try to write a poem about it. (As always, totally committed to originality. Remember my story about being an artist?) I had never been interested in poetry as more than a passing concern. I certainly read a lot, and there was some poetry in the mix, but there was never any major drive to write anything myself. Until Plath. And Rimbaud. During that summer of the broken heart, I happened to be reading these poets and I suddenly realized that maybe I could write poems too. And who wouldn’t want to read the meandering thoughts of a heartbroken young novice?
I wrote my first fifty poems about Joanie. And believe me, they were confessional to the point of TMI. I didn’t bother myself with metaphor and imagery, or worrying about mundane concerns like interesting use of language and syntax. Those early poems were about venting. Eventually, I started to get over my deep sadness. By that time, I had become a fairly productive poet. As my approach to the craft of poetry developed, I had very little background knowledge upon which to draw, having never taken any creative writing classes. What I found myself mostly using to create poems was a close attention to sensory detail that came out of being an artist (at least before the hamburgers and the lying set in).
By the time I moved on from writing about Joanie (if I have… I think I have), I had moved: new home, new girlfriend, eventually a wife and later my magnificent son was born. After producing a few hundred poems and flipping twenty thousand hamburgers, I quit writing. I lost my creative drive. There were too many diapers to change, an endless series of playgrounds to visit, more bills to pay than we could be bothered to actually pay, not that building a career in the kitchen of a Baker’s Square doesn’t pay well. For at least a few years, both poetry and art seemed to have evaporated from my world. Real life took over.
Out of nowhere, a thought occurred to me: Haiku! I had never written one before. It had been such a long time since I last wrote anything that I no longer considered myself a poet, even in my lies to family and coworkers. I’d like to say that haiku came into my life and pulled me from my own mundane existence. I could tell you about how I found a spiritual connection with the generations of haiku masters who came before me. In reality, I wrote a few. They were terrible.
I shan’t subject you
to seventeen syllables
of crappish haikus.
I quickly realized that my haiku would not be the masterwork that made my name and brought me fame and riches. What did happen, though, is that after I completed some haiku, I wrote a few more. My interest in writing that had dried up years earlier wasn’t dead. When I began writing those haikus, I had no expectation about becoming a poet again or reviving my creative work. It was just something to do. I enjoyed it. Did I mention the dubious quality? It didn’t matter. My advice to the young poet is Go write some bad haiku! (And please don’t ask me to read it.) After having been both an aborted artist and writer, I could still write a bad haiku. Why couldn’t I?
Long after the haiku incident had faded into history, I realized that what began that day continued. In the years that followed that haiku pivot point, I wrote a few hundred poems. I began sending work to poetry journals. Most would decline my request to be published. I found, however, that if one out of every ten journals (or twenty journals or whatever) wanted to publish my poems, it was largely a matter of doing the work to get my stuff out there. I kept writing and I kept sending. Sometimes I’d get tired of trying, so I’d take a break for a few days or weeks. Then I’d get back to work.
Writing became about the work and the love of doing it. I now write almost everyday. Sometimes I send a lot of work out to journals, contests or publishers, but usually I’m more interested in moving on to write the next poem. I write a lot of them. Just recently I was preparing a submission for a journal that marries poetry and art. I was looking through my digital portfolio of images to find appropriate items to submit together with my recent poems. As I scrolled through the photos, it occurred to me that in the last two years I’ve produced more visual art –and in widely varied media –than I ever did when I was trying to be an artist. Art and poetry are just what I do.
Epilogue and an IKEA Virgin
My son needs a new bedroom dresser. We decided to go to IKEA, a store I’ve never shopped at before. The only one in the community in which we live is a thirty-minute drive from home. On the way there I was talking about poetry and art. I think I had enjoyed too much coffee at home before leaving, because I began to monologue. Even as I rambled on about my latest poems and the current charcoal drawing that I’m doing on taped grocery bags, I was thinking how nice it must be for my son that art and poetry are daily elements of his life. They’re not precious. They’re not in isolated moments of creativity. He makes things. We draw and paint and play music together. Doing the work is what it’s about. Just get it done and move on to the next thing. It’s exciting.
So I’m driving and talking on and on, and I look over and my son’s asleep.
–James D. Autio,
Minneapolis, July 2013
BLOG EDITOR’s NOTE:
Albuquerque, you may actually have caught a bit of James D. Autio’s work being shown in our city. James is one of the friends and colleagues who did some work with MRI images of my brain scans a few years back. (I’d hit a new level of damage to brain that I was struggling to accept, and as part of my healing process, I invited friends to play with the MRI images of what was happening and make something, make anything, just give it a meaning besides diagnostic fear… many helped my heart endure that year–James was one. He made two short films that really mattered to me. For me, they were like prayers and care and connection to world and color and movement and light and joy and grief beyond the medical box I was grappling with. To see my medical diagnostic scans juxtaposed with really “high art familial crayon images” (BEST CRAYON EVER) and everything else Autio was up to, was healing. For a while, I was so moved by his works I used them as my “crying tool”—when I was pent up and needed to weep, I’d watch what he’d made and give myself the time to “weep myself accepting.” And artistically, he surprised me on many levels: he does things with language that make me coo. I now sometimes peruse his blog when I’m hungry for a very particularly inexplicable word sense–but I’ll write more about that later. When my book about the hard fight of getting my MS diagnosis came out(Caput Nili: How I Won the War & Lost My Taste for Oranges), I celebrated the book release with friends. Long distance, James Autio was at this celebration in Albuquerque. Along with a performance by Michael C. Ford of Los Angeles and reading by Renny Golden of Chicago/Albuquerque, we showed short films by some of my collaborators, including work by Bryan Konefsky, a piece with Jeanne Liotta (and Mark Weaver live on tuba), and film by James D. Autio. That was February 22, 2011 at 516 ARTS. The whole event “wrapped” with a collaborative piece called simply “Dancing Mandarin Oranges” that Bryan Konefsky and Kris Mills had helped me make for the one-woman-show I did at Out Ch’Yonda with Virginia Hampton as my director. The oranges spell out a wet and sticky and yummy “fin”….
Upcoming Fabric of Community: I’ve got another really strong essay from Virginia Hampton in the chute and will let it out after she returns to Belize and the “missing pangs” get to me…. Right now, she’s still in Albuquerque and will be teaching her performance workshop tomorrow. I’m gonna revel in her presence. Hope you do too… workshop details here.