Useful Discomfort, by Peter Longofono

Peter Longofono
Peter Longofono
John Cage Meets Sun Ra (from reaktorplayer.wordpress.com/)

This glorious guest post is authored by Peter Longofono, a musician / poet who received his MFA in Creative Writing from NYU in 2012, where he co-edited international content (with meself) for Washington Square Review, and served as a Goldwater Fellow, teaching writing to patients at Goldwater Hospital. Recently, he has joined forces with Alissa Fleck to host this year’s Graduate Poets Series at Cornelia St. Cafe in Manhattan. His poems and/or criticism have appeared in Hangman, Cumberland River Review, and Coldfront. He lives in Brooklyn. His influences, poetically, include Paul Celan, Ben Lerner, Tony Tost, Zachary Schomburg, Hölderlin. Musically: The Bad Plus, The Mars Volta, Theolonious Monk, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, John Scofield.

Jazz is a lot of what New York City means to me. The art and practice of it, yes, of course, and rightfully so, but what I’m interested in is how the city gestalt makes itself apparent: through cognitive dissonance, gems in deeply uncomfortable circumstances, the overabundance of attention-grabbers materializing from the aether. The whole city comes that way—categorizable from a distance, hyperinvolved with proximity. Jazz as a term feels right because of all the autonomy (too much, often) afforded to the whole citizen/performer/audience mess one has to navigate in order to actually accomplish anything. That whatever-I-want-ness, in all its connotations, like a clustered chord, colors so much of the intake. One finds oneself publicized, damn it. There are so many reagents within arm’s reach that a private reaction is strictly off-limits.

Friedrich Hölderlin Stamps it, Baby
Friedrich Hölderlin says: “stamp this, Baby!” (says Wikipedia Commons)

The situation is exacerbated, or foiled, for me because I live in an apartment with no windows. It isn’t a desirable retreat except for sleep, which I here acknowledge. My choices are a kind of sensory deprivation or an all-out improv war (this holds even for simple laundry trips, a walk for a falafel sandwich, etc.). One can never be safe from the threat of being accosted, as one realizes one shouldn’t ever really be. And I find that as soon as I stop fortifying against it—as the urge comes to fruitlessly stand the ego up against psychedelics—I’m given material of value. Naked sentimentality, even, is enriched against such a background. The interrupted thought becomes the fulcrum of a successful poem, a new kind of poem, a new kind of success. My initial reaction is almost always to play the victim, harried by bickering, trainscreech, human shit, obstacles. I’m right, and I’m wrong; having the intelligence to weigh both is creative gasoline.

Mingus Smokes a fat one
Mingus says “eat my smoke, MFA!”  (Wiki Commons)

Jumping around:

1)     You participate as a jazz musician would: never stop practicing, overlay the particulars of any situation with an off-kilter voicing, accomplish the task the other way, operate on the edge of your subtlety. Operate on both edges of your subtlety.

2)     Jazz as a device for endless reinterpretation. An idea, an intent, can be as thoroughly qualified or distracted as a photon on its way out of the sun.

3)     The music itself undergoes these processes as well. My jaw drops at local musicians’ choices in instrumentation, orchestration, and improvisation. The sheer excellence can reverse on itself in a way I didn’t quite get before I met the right people: the act of a tearing down a tower, say, or how quickly an assembly scatters. Drones, non-languages, no wave, disintegration, etc. It’s a cerebral flavor.

4)     The taste for the zany, the brash, and the fundamentally inexplicable emerges. The truth is, I couldn’t always listen to a lone baritone sax. I didn’t always have the means to measure how “out” art can be. Over time, the act of standing in a hallway between two unrelated auditory phenomena has become sweet to me. I used to be repulsed by the octave-skipping flush of celestial bop my brain would sometimes conjure on stoned walks. It was too much. It was unlistenable.  And then I stopped, and it wasn’t.

5)     I can gauge my musical development by interval. At one time, even a dominant seventh—even orchestrated far apart—was too dissonant. I can never be sure, but in my experience it seems that I had more virgin ears than most. It doesn’t really shame me, now (I mean, weird, right?), but in consequence I’ve gone through discrete appreciative modes instead of a blurred continuum. 9 chord, bam! Maj9, even better! Creeping elitism, probably. We are what we pretended to be. I pretended to not hate jazz, and over about 5 years the hate dwindled and starved. Defining moment: grasping the 13, fully realizing the sweep of a two-handed polychord, cultivating my ear to the point that something came sharply true. This moment was as central to me as my first orgasm.

Often it seems that I couldn’t have taken NYC without some of the aforementioned preliminaries. I run into people whose mindsets roughly match mine from age 17, 21, 23 (I’m still young enough for these to be wildly different). How are they here? I would have broken long ago if I hadn’t learned the sourer language. It’s probably that any mental clothing will serve if worn long enough—less adaptability than toughening. And it’s not as if I don’t have my own psychic maladies: I’m entirely too forgetful, some territories of thought are still too unforgiving. Peace of mind is decidedly foreign. I operate in useful discomfort, and conveying that is largely the content of whatever art I make. That’s jazz: it can’t be premeditated, terming it kills it, it hasn’t moved anything (least of all you) without failing on some other important front. On encountering another instance of itself, as galaxies sometimes do, the cosmic space between its constituents allows interweaving, with the occasional riveting collision.

I’m the kind of poet for whom words, wordlets, -fixes, roots, and morphemes hold the most potential. I think of language segments as possessing or lacking violence. The harshest insult in my arsenal is tame. This (exo)skeleton I borrow and return to music; that fluidity saves me. I retreat from one to the other. NYC is a chief reservoir of oddness in my life—for this alone I would be grateful—and in gridding its miniscules in liaison with and against one another, I’m gifted an outstanding toolbox with which to do violence to any of my ideas reeking of singleness.

The mantra: nothing gets to be itself for long. No one is in charge of how anything is received. The author’s best and most worthy act is to retract authorship.

These are arts and practices of jazz. They serve me, and I will serve them until a better way presents itself.

____________

 This is the third in a series of guest posts hovering around the question Why Do I Live Here? I ask the question because I am interested in hearing about the impact NYC has on others. The question has other questions swimming with it, baby questions, such as: is there a lot of pressure in their work lives? How do they deal with the lack of space? What are their coping mechanisms? Are there more substances involved, whether legal or illegal, than when they lived elsewhere? Has iPod usage increased to drown out subway screech? Do they jog or yoga to maintain peace of mind, and filter out the Borg-like nature of competing stimuli? Does the city shatter their life’s bones, but enrich their creativity? Or, do they simply thrive on it? If you are interested in contributing a guest post, please write to newyorkperistalsis@gmail.com for consideration.

Advertisements

Already I Lay Snug, by Craig Moreau

 This is the second in a series of guest posts hovering around the question Why Do I Live Here? I ask the question because I’m interested in hearing about the impact NYC has on others. The question has other questions swimming with it, baby questions, like: is there a lot of pressure in their work lives? How do they deal with the lack of space? What are their coping mechanisms? Are there more substances involved, whether legal or illegal, than when they lived elsewhere? Has iPod usage increased to drown out subway screech? Do they jog or yoga to maintain peace of mind, and filter out the Borg-like nature of competing stimuli? Does the city shatter their life’s bones, but enrich their creativity? Or, do they simply thrive on it? If you are interested in contributing a guest post, please write to newyorkperistalsis at gmail.com for consideration.

This guest post is by Craig Moreau, who attended NYU for his MFA in poetry. His first collection, Chelsea Boy, was published in 2011 by Chelsea Station Editions. He currently lives in Philadelphia. This post originally appeared on his blog, Chelseaboynyc. We here in the digestive tract hope you like it, and hope that you check out his book.  Thanks for contributing to the conversation, Craig, and for being among the first onto the dance floor.

_______________________

NYC

I originally intended this to be a short post, just a few pictures, about a not-too unique walk through a Thursday night in NYC. It didn’t take to long for me to realize I was writing my goodbye letter to the city I’ve lived in for the last six years.

The day started with a normal shift at Columbia’s Writing Center. I read an essay on ‘the essay’, helped with e-mails for a non-native speaker, and talked with my colleges about the suburbanization of New York (or at least, Manhattan). This is one reason, I’ll say reason #1, that led to my decision to move to Fishtown, Philadelphia.

My night started with a reading in the West Village. The book was an anthology of “Short Stories from the Long War” and featured writing from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I worked with many of the writers in that same room during my stint at NYU as a Veterans’ Writing Workshop instructor. I hadn’t expected it, but in their opening remarks they thanked me and my co-instructor, Emily B, for our help in the previous years. It was a nice opportunity for me to realize I managed to help in some way while I’ve been here; living in an 8 x 8 room, surrounded by the noise of modern life, one can easily forget that their actions have any impact in this city. During the Q&A I asked: “During the workshop, there were many questions about identity. Do you see yourself as a veteran who writes, or a writer who happens to be a veteran?”

Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War

They were proud as they signed the copy I purchased — this was real — they had something tangible that said they were writers, as if in some way adding to their narrative of reintegration. Student to soldier, soldier to veteran, veteran to writer. I thought about my earlier question, if these terms are important for people in constructing one’s identity. In the transitory period from one term to another, perhaps we lose ourselves. Or, is it then that we’re most ourselves?

I wrote my honor’s thesis at University of Iowa on veteran’s reintegration. A course that facilitated that thesis, taught by Barbara Eckstein, had a title that always stuck with me. She couldn’t decide if it should be called “Over there and coming home,” or “Coming home, from over there.” The difference is subtle, but one that I’ve never been able to reconcile.

After the reading, I joined two friends for a beer at Fiddlesticks, a bar that happens to serve food, located on Greenwich and 7th Ave. We talked about masculinity, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, poetry, music and how people who have more time, talk slower (see: the South, or, Midwest). This led to a conversation exploring why is it, that the time between breakfast and lunch on a beach seems enormous, but when you’re walking through New York it can seem like everything has already passed?

Reason #2 why I’m going: New York is too fast. Which isn’t necessarily the main problem, in fact, it was part of the reason that kept me here, but coupled with reason #3, it’s too expensive to notice anything. Teaching, grading, and packing into the (1) Train leaves little time to sail up and down the avenues, filtering from one door to the next, from Chelseas and HKs to Park Slopes and Astorias.

After I filtered out of Fiddlesticks, I walked through the Meatpacking and arrived in front of the Soho House. I stopped in for an old standby, by far the best cocktail they make: a Moscow Mule (with extra ginger). I found a spot on the roof with the smokers.

I was wearing grey Levis, a blue denim jacket and a beanie–noticeably different from all the heels and fashionably-disheveled ties that swung among the flirtatious laughter. I opened a notebook and began to write. Between my dress, my solitude, and the public writing, I was probably the strangest person on the roof. Some of those who roof’d with me were curious; others were dismissive, but for the most part, everyone ignored what must have looked like a body that could not help theirs.

gvoort

I faced the Gansevoort, the Miami-esque  silver steeled and purpled lit hotel. Even though it’s technically below Soho House, everyone here always looks “down” on the Gansevoort. However, not far off the bow-legged Standard observes like a dismissive parent, just far enough away, to laugh at the invented feud.

From Mule-side and pool-side, I left for a nearby taco-truck. For $2.50 you can get that authentic corn-tortilla taste that you’ll never have at a Taco Bell. The fresh cilantro carried the ginger from earlier and filtered me into Starbucks on 16th St. and 8th. I sat in the window and drank a green tea with honey, staring directly at the street I called home for a (good) year. I was sitting in a Starbucks, looking across at a Bank of America, and next to that a Duane Reade. It is the most convenient block in Manhattan. There are many convenient blocks in Manhattan.

nookFishtown, Philadelphia has no Starbucks (Reason #4). It does have a small BoA. Though across the street from it, however, an apartment displays a banner that reads “I hate Bank of America!” The two relieve me a little—it shows some sort of awareness that both perspectives exist. For coffee, I visited the Lola Bean, which safeguards your punch card at the register so you don’t have to hold on to them, the Milkcrate Cafe, which is decorated in vinyls, and The Buzz Cafe, filled with kids, construction workers, junkies, and paintings, which are for sale. The point is there is no Starbucks.

Walking home, I almost went to Barracuda (22nd and 8th) but wasn’t quite ready to talk to anyone but myself. So, I came home, made comfort food (mac n’ cheese), added some red pepper flakes to continue the theme punctuated by the ginger and cilantro, and settled into bed. I put on Star Trek (Next Generation), thought about the Prime Directive, and fell asleep. I walked through New York but dreamt of Philadelphia.

Native Freak, by Richard Prins

 This is the first in a series of guest posts hovering around the question Why Do I Live Here? I asked the question because I’m interested in hearing about the impact NYC has on others. The question has other questions swimming with it, baby questions, like: is there a lot of pressure in their work lives? How do they deal with the lack of space? What are their coping mechanisms? Are there more substances involved, whether legal or illegal, than when they lived elsewhere? Has iPod usage increased to drown out subway screech? Do they jog or yoga to maintain peace of mind, and filter out the Borg-like nature of competing stimuli? Does the city shatter their life’s bones, but enrich their creativity? Or, do they simply thrive on it? 

Appropriately, the first in this series is by a nativist New Yorker, Richard Prins, who sometimes lives in Dar es Salaam. He received his MFA degree in poetry from New York University, and now is hoping to spend time translating Swahili poetry. His work appears in Los Angeles Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Rattle, Redivider and Transition Magazine. (See Poets and Writers directory for more links to examples of his poems online.)

Richard Prins at The Mermaid Parade (© R. Prins)
Richard Prins at The Mermaid Parade (© R. Prins)

When I was fourteen years old I experienced a personality crisis. I couldn’t decide whether I was Jesus or Charlie Manson. It was a strange time. The Twin Towers had just been toppled, on my second day of high school. I was rapidly becoming aware that I was a deviant leftist poet freak, and felt I wouldn’t have many friends in my overwhelmingly preppie school. So I spent my free time sleeping under benches in the student lounge, listening to Leonard Cohen on my discman and shouting his lyrics at anyone who passed. I began a quick and confusing relationship with a lady who was addicted to heroin. When my parents forbade me from seeing her, I declared war on them, snarls and silence my preferred mode of battle. Meanwhile, she checked into a mental institution. I could have told my parents I would stop seeing her, a harmless surrender, but decided on a hunger strike instead. They sent me to a drug counselor with a bobbing ponytail whose name sounded a lot like Carlos Castaneda, the peyote guru. I pissed in a cup every Tuesday after school for a couple months, and came up clean. Because, I wasn’t “on drugs”; I simply couldn’t figure out whether I was meant to be Jesus or Charlie Manson.

David asked me to write something for New York Peristalsis fielding the question, “why do you live in New York?” My gut instinct is to retort, why the fuck would I live anywhere else? and leave it at that.

I’ve lived here all my life, except for several stays in East Africa, a year and a half, taken cumulatively. My girlfriend also frequently asks me why I insist on living here. She’s seen how much more alive I am, dancing all night to a live soukous band in Dar es Salaam, guzzling Safari lagers and making friends I’ll never forget, even if I never see them again.

But there’s a simple fact that keeps me here: New York is who I am.

I suspect it’s a logic–an inherently conservative logic–that keeps a lot of people in a lot of awful places. I was lucky enough to be born into an identity that doesn’t feel conservative, no matter how stubbornly I cling to it.

*                                             *                                             *

I was considering becoming Jesus because I had marched in the West Indian Day Parade, carrying the banner for a progressive political candidate. I was dispatched to bring placards to Al Sharpton‘s contingent, who had recently endorsed us. But the crowd was a bulging, insurmountable knot. I was lost, a lanky hippie kid in pre-gentrification Crown Heights, arms loaded with political placards. I felt like a hapless tourist in my own city. I sat down in front of a bodega to gather my bearings. A man with a flute in his hands, a deep trill in his voice, and a Jamaican flag bandana wrapped around his ropy dreadlocks, took a seat next to me. He used to be a rich man with his very own truck, he told me, but he gave it all away because Jesus told him to–it’s in the Bible!

I was in the habit of collecting mentors. I immediately decided he was the wisest person I had ever met, and that I should listen to everything he said. He told me I have peaceful eyes, and that peaceful eyes are a blessing; after all, Jesus said, blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

I wanted to be a peacemaker. So why not be the child of god? But later it occurred to me that Charlie Manson had the same name as Jesus, and looked quite a bit like him too. Except his eyes weren’t peaceful. Neither were mine, ensconced as they were in social anxiety and teenage rebellion. So maybe my dreadlocked hobo friend was mistaken, and I had to become a psychopath instead.

Back at school, I dressed in black and called everyone “sheep” to their faces. I imagined it was exactly what both Charlie and Jesus would have done.

I could have suffered a similar existential crisis in any American suburb. But could I have survived it? I don’t know. High school is such brutal solipsism; it’s only possible to believe there’s a world beyond it if you’re actually interacting with that world.

In New York, all I had to do was hop on the subway to expand my consciousness and carve myself an alternative identity. After school (if I didn’t have to proclaim my innocence in urine) I could hand out flyers or stuff envelopes for any sufficiently radical cause, while collecting wisdom from assorted wingnuts. Or I could lounge with a book in Tompkins Square Park until I bumped into some disaffected and possibly drug-addled youths I knew from antiwar protests. Or I could go to an open mic and read my poems, which ran the gamut from antiwar slam pieces relying heavily on images of George W. Bush masturbating an oil spout, to cryptic nonsensical Burroughs imitations which also frequently conjured the president masturbating an oil spout.

Back at school, I was still a freak, but I was becoming comfortable expressing my freakishness.

What would I have done if I lived in the suburbs? start a Live Journal?

I realize I’m setting up a false dichotomy — “New York” vs. “the suburbs”, as if there’s no other place to live in the universe. Sue me, I’m a parochial bastard.

*                                             *                                             *

My rant–already inelegant–is about to skid and veer into territory that’s inherently problematic. I’ll feel safer if I quote James Baldwin first: Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated – in the main, abominably – because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.

For good luck, I also want to quote Jamaica Kincaid:

An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just passed cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness…So when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.

Rubbing those quotes together, I realize something in the friction: A tourist is a freak! A privileged freak. No wonder I have such a great time in Dar es Salaam — I get to play freak 24/7. But I always have to come back to New York, where I’m still a freak, but a native freak, with a comparatively pleasureless existence.

I can’t count how many times, somewhere hip in North Brooklyn, I’ve been asked where I’m from, and when I say I’m from here, my interlocutor thinks I’ve misunderstood the question. No, where are you really from, they ask, drawing out the word “from” as if I don’t know the meaning of a simple preposition, as if it’s impossible to actually get born in this place.

And I can’t help spitefully imagining they’ll be free, one to ten years from now, to pick up and leave. When they have a nervous breakdown. When they give up on affording the rent. When they’re hired for a dream job in some podunk town like Palo Alto. Or when they have kids and can’t imagine raising them in such a feral playground. The only thing binding them to this city is their own two feet; I’m still attached by the umbilical cord.

I pity them for not growing up in New York. But I also envy them. They seem to be having so much more fun than me, truly relishing the joyride my city offers. They remind me of ex-pats in Tanzania, flocked in their exclusive clubs with a house band churning out endless Bob Marley covers, the only visible locals a chic mix of faux-Rasta hustlers and excessively-lipsticked, anglophone prostitutes.

The only thing uglier than a tourist is an ex-pat who still acts like a tourist.

*                                             *                                             *

Nobody comes to New York because they want to be happy, unless they’re fucking deluded. They come seeking thrills and truth. But there must come a time when you’re too jaded to just consume and enjoy what thrills and truth the city has to offer. As a bona fide New Yorker, you have to cultivate your banality and boredom and offer it up like an aphrodisiac for all the tourists and newcomers and weekend pubcrawlers. You perform New York. Because at the end of the day, their unseemly giddiness is what proves New York great, and New York’s greatness is your own greatness.

Is that really the moral of my rant? Since I was fourteen, I’ve tried so hard to be radical. But take away my dashikis and knee-jerk politics, erase my hedonistic explorations and lustful globetrotting — at heart I’m a conservative, a loyalist, a New York nativist — taking comfort in what’s familiar and expecting to be rewarded for it.