The experiential writing that follows was first realized on a gorgeous day in the middle of the week when, feeling sensory overload, I took a seat on some steps at a gallery entrance and let myself fade into the concrete. There came to me a rambling passage of stream-of-conscience prose:
Hanging your hairy knuckles in my face, blocking my sun, you mutha, on a slab of public concrete built on emotion…I am going to lay back and not think about the next thing that I have to do. Not think of the time or what I want to accomplish…Lay down now, I say, lay down, you mutha…Girls behind me at a table have a conversation. Two guys sat beside me move their mouths. My eyes are closed and I’m thinking about the insects. I stretch and tweak a muscle. Listen! I tell myself. I see a full-lipped black woman as a silhouette in my mind…
This entire experiment took place at the end of last summer in the city of San Francisco and in various parts of southern and northern California where I happened to be traveling. For 40 days I challenged myself to lie down on concrete sidewalks and steps in distinct locations with political, economic, social, cultural, and natural relevance for a period of time no shorter than five minutes and no longer than an hour. During that time I experienced the life around me and inside of me with my eyes closed. Then I wrote.
What began as a sentient experience became a question of my relationship with the concrete. There was an obvious divide between this inorganic surface and my organic expression; I hoped to create a medium where the two could meet. I figured that in order to do that I had to get away from writing a story about concrete, and capture the concrete itself.
Looking back, before I began this experiment I perceived concrete as an unpoetic and superficial medium that buried the language of the natural world. It was an imposition that I witnessed all my life. I saw nations use it to symbolize their power, to separate the developing from the stagnant, and to adopt western conveniences on once bucolic pastures. It seemed in some maddening way to be correlated with progress.
Concrete is one of humankind’s answers to its collective fears. It keeps the unpredictable in check. It creates an order that withstands the innate human flaws at our lowest common denominator. It keeps us in control of nature so that we can continue to live in an enlightened age where reason and intellect are the guiding light of civilization.
Maybe concrete improved our quality of life. This is not to suggest that it has not. But if concrete is a metaphor of the human need for the concrete, then how can it truly indicate progress?
In spite of the fact that concrete is inorganic, ugly, and adds blight to our total living experience, it is taken as a necessary evil that connects the individual and society. But the individual urban resident does not have a choice about whether or not to embrace the concrete. We have been conditioned to accept an urban infrastructure that, for the most part, has been passed on through generations. Things seem as if the industrialists have won outright the hearts and minds of the people. We are limited by imaginations that have difficulty bending beyond what is seen. Words are now an accessory to life. We become accustomed to seeing life in the language of planning, development, and construction and we forget to demand its poetry. While in history there is no space for the social function of subjectivity, concrete can be a public medium for the particular individual experience to find its expression. The question is, where is the poetry in city living?
These are three ways I discovered poetry on the concrete:
First, I found there is a universal language for embracing a public good. In economic terms, a public good is a good that is non-exclusive and non-rival in consumption. All city dwellers bear the marks of their concrete reality; it is the nexus of our individual lives. If it is a prerequisite to our civilized co-existence, non-exclusive and non-rival in consumption, then while conforming to human nature it also alienates us from the natural flow of life. We can revitalize the concrete by recovering its natural language. The language used to generate the poetry of a public good is derived from seeing the public good’s beauty. Its beauty is in the human experience and therefore cannot be attributed to its scarcity, but to its accessibility.
Second, I learned that we have to first accept the concrete reality that already exists in order to experience it for what it is and then experiment with it. While survival is one struggle, experiencing life: to listen, see, love, feel, think, and breathe simultaneously, is another challenge altogether. It is a challenge we all face, but most of us either don’t have the time or don’t take the time to notice. The individual experience that is of no concern to the public may not be guided by a discipline written in the streets, but the concrete will teach what there is to learn to those who can maneuver through its heaps of stimuli. It offers no easy choices and a little of everything. To accurately represent the life that is found there means finding a balance of perspectives and juxtaposing them onto your own version of disinterest. When I could not shut out my mind processes I reminded myself that this was to challenge my fears, my background, and the place where I live. That freed me to embrace my own reality.
Third, I realized the reaffirmation of a basic premise: if you want to get more out of life, you must sometimes be uncomfortable. This is the way to poetry. This is the unifying force behind my work. More often than not, the difficult thing is the only thing worth doing. We tire of complication far more quickly than from comfort or ease, but from the complex there emerges an abstract simplicity. These are the small ideas that lead the way to meaning. And meaning is all we really need. After the mimosas and the soccer games, after the near heart attacks and nuclear arms races, after the daily grind where things are pretty much what we like to call “the same,” there is meaning.
Concrete and its “sameness” seems to be the nemesis of poetry but it isn’t. The poet attempts to order words in such a way so that words do something deliberate. It is the reader that has the difficult task of finding meaning. In the pages that follow you should be able to see that poetry without the reader is like the concrete without concrete.
Barnier’s laid back flat on concrete
beside a picnic table
familiar expectorant on his lips.
Voices descend like powder
Whoohooh leaders sublimate spirit
post kickball gurgle gurgle
pockets of air filled with Shots! Drinks! Yay!
I am listening to my dull brain force understanding
about the motion of a rolling ball.
I wanted something imagined
and I was called out on strikes.
Called out on strikes, demmit.
sometimes you have to take what you get.
I wanted something that I imagined
and did not use what I got.
This is the way of the civilized world.