I ran into John McLaughlin of The Brass Rooster and was stunned by the hat he was wearing. This isn’t surprising, as John and Kate have provided a haven for haberdashery in Milwaukee for a decade now. This hat, however, had some unique artistry going on. So I made plans for later in the week to stop by the store, and came up with this article for OnMilwaukee.
As with most things, I stumbled onto the music of Kevin Morby long after everyone else had. It was by way of seeing the video (below) for I Have Been To The Mountain.
After awhile I bought the record, Singing Saw, and have enjoyed it, but while driving with the windows and moonroof open for the first time I was stunned by how the music didn’t capture the way I felt while watching the video. I realized, on the winding two-lane 55 bordered by hopelessly saturated farm fields, that the absent ingredient was the theatrical dance performance by Nathan Mitchell. Context informs everything, and my context for this song had been the playful, expressive, tattooed and dying character in the song’s video.
Probably a year ago, I received a wedding invitation that requested an RSVP with three songs that would, “Get you on the dance floor.” I agonized over that until I had to send back the RSVP. The problem wasn’t which songs, it was the idea that I would move my body in a way that might somewhat mirror my emotions. I don’t move with emotions. I’m a poet, a writer, sure I’m artsy with my feelings in a way, but where I grew up boys and men were never taught a vocabulary for moving expressively. We were taught to fight back when necessary, or maybe to throw something in anger (like dad), but never to be open with our bodies in any way. If anything, we avoided dancing (and feelings, surprise) until pulled onto the dance floor by a woman whose attraction we couldn’t deny.
My last semester in college I had all electives left over and took a drawing class. At first drawing made me anxious and frustrated because I could immediately see that I wasn’t good. I knew logically that drawing is a skill – like anything else – but I always expect a lot from myself. Once I calmed down, increased my dexterity, and found a groove, I was stunned by how emotional I felt while drawing. I’d be sitting in a class rendering the instructor’s arrangement of arbitrary bowls and cups and boxes and I’d nearly begin to cry. Moving to create or to feel seemed so alien to me that it almost drew me to tears for confusion of feeling. I am 38 years old.
The irony is that my 11-year-old is a dancer. Ballet, specifically. My kid doesn’t even walk anymore so much as pirouetting, or executing Grand Jete (more or less leaping forward with arms in the air – remember I’m not a dancer) from place to place. I never expected for a ballet dancer the way I’m sure my parents never expected for a poet.
When I was a kid the option was baseball, so I played baseball. And it was fine – old farm fields converted to dusty diamonds surrounded by developing cul de sacs. Not a place where men learn to express the language of thoughts and feelings. If anything, expressing yourself in those surroundings can put one in tangible danger of other men who lash out with a feral anger they can’t rationalize regarding expression. I think often of BH Fairchild’s epic poem Beauty deliberating on men expressing and encountering beauty; how radical to hear a man utter that anything is, “Lovely.”
As a child, never at any point did I have any clue what my dad was thinking or feeling, unless he was shouting in anger. He was like the brackish void up there in the driver’s seat, at the helm of the recliner with a newspaper, on the other side of the baseball I flung above the suburban lawn.
Sometimes I feel like an emotionally blind man trying to guide a child somewhere toward a vocabulary of feeling and assertion and communication. So I just talk a lot. By the time my kid was three I’d probably said more than my father told me his whole life. I don’t know what else to do, and that makes the most sense to me. I guess we’re both developing a vocabulary, if anything I’m probably at the handicap compared with the honesty immediacy of a child. Children will help you if you let them.
I looked into this Nathan Mitchell, the fella dancing in the Kevin Morby video, as I tend to do when stumbling on artists whose work makes me want to know more. Turns out (I gather from his Instagram presence) he rides motorcycles, goes fishing, doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. Overall, not too different from me. The big difference being his mother opened a dance studio when he was two years old. We learn the environment we’re simmered within. The context. I wonder if he sits down to type and is stymied by linguistics, the way movement appears to flummox me.
This is how poetry happens. By noticing what you’re noticing. Not some crap about being visited by the muse. Just pay attention to what catches your eye, your senses, galls your sensibilities, your curiosity for language. And play with that, follow that. Even if it’s consternation about the name of a company while waiting at a stoplight. Click the arrow to read this here little poem.
During the snowstorms we had in the Midwest, I was driving behind a snow plow and started noticing the nuances of the driver operating the vehicle. I pulled off the freeway, wrote this poem on my phone, sent it to the 89.7 WUWM Lake Effect staff, went home to shovel snow, then went to the studio to record. Give a listen here.
Last winter I happened upon an artist painting the frozen Lake Michigan shore. I admired her method and introduced myself, asked if I could take a few pictures. The painter is Lynn Rix and I’m pleased that this chance interaction gradually led to her art show opening this Thursday evening at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center alongside fellow plein air painter Pamela Ruschman. I’m excited to see their work on the walls at Schlitz Audubon and you should come check it out too.
I forgot I’d taken this video. It’s like a wacky postmodern daydream. Something I thought would be neat in a movie somehow. The grinding and gulls, anti-party fanfare of a flaccid flag standing guard outside of a forgotten pub. I’m sure somebody hasn’t forgotten George’s. Listen for the sounds. They are especially.
“I’m out painting and people ask what I’m doing. I tell them I’m painting. They look at the canvas and they look at me and they look at the canvas. “Really?” they ask. I don’t know what else they think I’m doing. “Yes, really.” – Lynn Rix, plein air painter in every season
This past weekend I had the good fortune to shoot my first television reporting piece about tintype photographer Margaret Muza. She will be the next Artist in Residence at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel. Watch my first video piece here and learn a little about tintype photography.