I was never a graffiti artist. I was never what is considered an outsider artist. I was never street, never hard, never funky.
I was a poet. I was a public artist. I was a white, suburban teenager. I was middle class.
I never used spray paint. It’s smelly. And I never wrote my name anywhere that wasn’t a signature for my art (most of my public art was unsigned).
My destiny, however, seems inextricably interwoven with graffiti. And my legacy may well be the expression of an outsider in the world of Arts and Letters.
I was born old. Even as a teenager, I wrote like an old man sitting in his garden ~ my work was nothing like that of a punk or street poet. (I was invited to read on a radio show on KBOO in Portland, Oregon, by the host who only knew me through my poetry. When I appeared at the station in torn clothes, heavy jewelry, a bandana on my head, and a little drunk, her prejudice toward punk kids surfaced and she was hostile. The interview did not go well and was never aired. Luckily, a different radio show on KBOO invited me several times to read my poetry live and appreciative listeners called the station from five surrounding states. But that is getting ahead of the story.)
Many years before the "Commit Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Beauty" campaign (ala Anne Herbert, the great American philosopher), I made art with the idea of generating an effect, an epiphany, a resonant sensation in the heart. I wanted to affect people in a small, quiet way that reverberated through their psyches and across the universe like a tiny pebble tossed into a pond, the beating wings of a butterfly in New York causing winds in Tokyo… Poetry is the best artform for that.
I wrote poems and placed them in public places. It started by the conscious act of leaving a poem in a dark corner of the public library. Then a funky coffee shop. Then taped to a pole in a remote area of the park. When I was in high school, my literary/artsy friends were in college, many not knowing I was younger. This exposed me to things I would not otherwise have encountered and opened the university campus to me as a venue for my art. The gardens, the university library, the student union… I was not leafleting an area; I was creating a surprise, a delight for the person who encountered the single poem in the particular environment. Yes, I have a long history of juxtaposing words with public spaces.
I began tipping poems into library books. Just one at a time; one here, one there ~ how much could I write? This was a slow process ~ quite the opposite of graffiti. In a bookstore, it was possible to insert a postcard with a poem into the appropriate book (I am still known to smuggle one of my books into a bookstore and shelve it in the correct place!) but with the library, ahhh, that is where the art develops. I know it doesn’t sound revolutionary but defacing a library book was high vandalism to someone from my family. My idea, however, was not to deface but to alter and elevate. I was an artist enhancing a mundane experience. Often poems went into books of poetry but more interesting were combinations with books of social essays, histories, or economics where the subject was a counterpoint to or informed by the poem. Inter-library loan expanded my art as did enrolling in Cal State Long Beach where I then could take books from the university stacks. (I subsequently got a job in the university library ~ I was like a kid in a candy store!) When people asked if I were published, I would always answer I was in the best anthologies in the library!
The quiet revolution of my artwork expanded. And revolution is the only reasonable response to the idiocy of campus bureaucracy. (I was kicked off the campus literary magazine I helped start while I was still in high school because I was publishing professional anthologies with well-respected writers. It was considered a conflict of interest to publish both a campus, student journal and a non-campus, non-student journal. With logic like that, it is no wonder people graduate with degrees but not the ability to think.) I began making placards or broadsides and postcards ~ a poem with an image or the words themselves as the image. Word and image or word as image became emblematic of my work. I also made elaborate "mail art" and sent it around the world to delight both friends and strangers. (One later experiment in brevity: I got a handmade postcard to be delivered via regular post from Madrid, Spain to Cerritos, California without a last name, street address, or zip code ~ the recipient was definitely delighted!) In college, performance poetry and public art were new to the curriculum but already second nature to me. Outside of campus, I gave a couple workshops on the philosophy and making of handmade books.
Simultaneous to my work in poetry and art, even at a young age, my political convictions centered on ecology and peace. They remain so centered. I have always seen the futility of war and the abuse of the Earth as the folly of mules. In the First International Xerox Art Exhibition, one of my pieces displayed was a long poem, an elegy with a list of animals extinct since the 1600s. That poem was the cornerstone of my first, full-length book, Flowers of Ecstasy.
Read (PEACE) WORDS