Internet presence is what I was told I had some years ago when I was seeking an artist rep, a woman who, in the end, declined to represent my art. Internet presence is also what I was told I had by an e-book publisher who decided to publish my book of poetry and art, “We Are More Than Our Wounds,” in 2004. Unfortunately neither my book nor the other books on the site yielded enough sales to keep the publishing company afloat. Still, the phrase internet presence continues to stick with me, and I feel fairly uneasy about its allusions.
What on earth could it mean? Is cyberspace even really earthly or part of some manufactured netherworld twirling on the axis of a microchip?
When a person hears the word presence in conjunction with the stage or screen the meaning is fairly clear, but what actor serious about his talent would not like to believe a specific irreplaceable stamp is left by his very flesh and blood committing to a particular role?
In my case, whether via writing or art, I still want to remain anonymous as a human being, to be clear to the point of transparency. Yet if that were entirely the case why bother using my real name or signing a painting at all? Lack of imagination is the answer as to failure in the pseudonym department, whereas a good number of my paintings actually do go unsigned. In part this is due to the fact that I never got into the habit of signing them, but also that I found my signature distracting to the actual artwork. Moreover, since a great deal of my work is so textured, any attempt at a signature would be more illegible than usual. I can just picture how many pen nibs would break off, how many art lovers (or haters) would attempt to read the scrawl and go, “Now, what the hell? Honey, come here. Can you make this out?”
It is a wonder that with this perverse ambivalence I manage to have a presence at all, internet or otherwise, especially given the number of editors I’ve most likely annoyed by sending in .jpegs of images which have file names different from the actual painting titles. Technically maladjusted in the computer realm, when attempting to rename an image I receive a message from my monitor that the image properties may become unstable. Sounds ominous to me, and thus given the amount of instability I’ve known firsthand, I figure it’s better to leave well enough alone and not put the images through similar trauma.
It’s as if amnesia can be produced by fear of success, for there have even been times when sending off images that I draw a blank on their titles, titles which I may or may not have remembered to scribble on the back of the artwork. If by happy circumstance the artwork is framed, even if I did remember to write the name on the artwork then it’s another miracle if I also remembered to write it on the back of the frame. What’s humorous about this is that, as a lover of words, even if no one else gets the correlation, the title is very important to me. The film “Harold & Maude” comes to mind. One of the main characters, Maude, played by the luminous Ruth Gordon, is an artist who always names her work exactly as depicted by its contents. “I call this painting Purple Elephant Carrying a Yellow Umbrella during Rush Hour Traffic,” or some similar line, is one of the best in the film.
I should take a tip from such prosaic common sense.
Keeping a timeline of when artwork has been produced is an entirely different ballpark, and with all good intentions I thought I put dates on work only to discover the opposite. Then the challenge of recollecting what was going on in my life, or the world, comes into play during the time of creating a piece. This happened when I was gathering images for a series entitled “Our Book of Common Faith.” I recalled beginning the series prior to 9/11, but I also knew certain paintings took on a life of their own and became a series or two done in the midst of the other series. These were paintings completed during a period where I moved from an apartment to a house and went through a couple of employment changes as well as the death of my mother. Time is tricky when you are immersed in it, and all I can say is some of my paintings are dated with the best guestimate for those days and nights and weeks when, in fact, I was time out of mind. Indeed, time out of mind is where I am trying not to be right now.
Consider this essay a case study of a presence in search of itself, wondering how, why and if it ever came to be. Consider it also a case of absolute idiocy corrupting absolutely idiotically. (In truth, the amount of money I’ve spent on ink, paper and art supplies could have fed a small nation. I have some guilt about this.)
To reflect on one’s life isn’t all that unusual for a person who’s managed to reach what is considered middle-aged; to reflect and wonder if there is any point in continuing in the same direction as one has done up until now is slightly different.
It has been written that American Indians, during a journey, always take time to pause, look back at where they’ve come from in preparation as to where they will be. I wish my own thoughts could be so centered, grounded by a realistic path. Instead a more dubious mental flow pops up.
What on earth ever possessed me to commit words to paper, brush to canvas, let alone complete the foolish act of now and then sharing it? I learned early on that others finding out about such interests was, as Plato suggested, dangerous, that one becomes suspect to The Republic. One of the earliest examples of art as a target for derision occurred in the seventh grade. For some reason I wound up having the function of library aide for a librarian who was actually quite kind to me. Among my duties was to work on designs for the bulletin board which encouraged Reading as Being Fundamental. This work was done in a small shut room that had a window for one of its walls, and this window-wall faced a corridor. In other words, I and whatever I was working on was in full view of whoever went by. More than once I heard tap tapping on the glass, the rhythm of persistent fingers, and sometimes a loud slam. I would look up and some other student would be doing a skip-mimic sort of dance, waving limp wrists, and mouthing the words “gay boy.” Even if I did not look up, the taunts of “queer,” “fairy,” “faggot artist” echoed through the glass.
There are times even now when the survival strategies of childhood come into play: the knowledge of when to feign preoccupation, when not to look up, when to go in another direction rather than face the distortion of a mouth forming its ugly sneer or a stone being picked up. I have read that those who are held captive for the purpose of torture learn to adopt similar tactics. What strikes me as ironic is that bullies, and those who have never been bullied, often don’t realize that those who have been the prey of bullies may develop a sixth sense as to who in a throng is a bully, and who the bully’s lackey, and how to utilize avoidance tendencies to the best of one’s advantage. Either that, or the preyed upon are moth to flame as if in some Dante circle of reiteration, rarely able to change the outcome.
Another tap tapping enters my memory. I am sitting at the antique dining room table in the house I grew up in. My hand holds a pastel and the paper I am speckling gives off little clouds of colored dust. My glasses are filmed with the powder, as is my skin. Stippling. Pointillism. In an art class somewhere I must have learned of Georges Seurat, and been captivated by his technique, a certain obsessive compulsion that went with my anxious, asthmatic, but subconsciously driven personality. (A century before, the psychiatric community would have labeled such a way of passing time Hysteria and I would have learned about nice comfy padded rooms and jackets with special straps.)
“What are you doing? Is that for school?” my mom asks, probably wanting to use a ball peen hammer to do a little tap tapping of her own.
“Nothing. No,” I answer, embarrassed, heat blushing my cheeks since I know her views on this pastime of mine, and there’s some remorse regarding what it does to her. Not just the tapping part, for I currently live with a parrot that often tests the metal of his cage for break-out points in the same tapping way, and that is enough to make one consider boiling pots for parrot stew. No, what I understood to a hidden depth was that my art was a metaphor to my mom of all that was wrong with me; part and parcel of what might put me at danger in the world. Moreover, there was no practical use for it; no way to make a living, and this theme was reiterated throughout our relationship with one another for the rest of her life. Actually, further. Her puzzled, half-exasperated voice is one I still hear when attempting art, hers a worried alto in that negating chorus I carry inside of me.
Intimations of Medea is not something I am laying claim to here, for certainly childhood friends had it far worse than I did. I am just illustrating a development common to most families; that at some point Parents Are From Pluto & Children from Uranus. This is also a theme which I attempted to explore in one of my first doomed overwritten novels, “Where Time Goes,” a prevailing realization that to have artistic aspirations will not necessarily guarantee parental approval. Knowing the novel itself was ultimately destined to self-publishing or the scrap heap underscores another truth fairly hard to digest at first: Yes, Mom was right.
Presence in development is what the preceding expresses by the paradox of what presence is up against. Another large kernel in that formation, however, was wanting to believe I actually had some kind of talent, mixed with an equally large, or larger, fear that I did not. Still, the urge to create is even more visceral than that, coming from a primitive place, a caveman’s cry in the dark of Here I am! In caveman tongue, of course, that would translate as: “Wubba Chuggie Bu!” The need to be recognized, deep down, for who one is, I think, is not just a seeking of attention, but a basic personality construct in all of us on some level.
By the time I graduated high school the intensity of trying to be secretly creative, mixed with the negative connotations of being shamefully found out, left me like two fish with tails intertwined. There was something desperate about the spinning. In fact, during an 11th grade creative writing course after being repeatedly singled out for vocabulary definitions or examples on imagery versus symbolism, I recall asking, none too tactfully, for the teacher to stop, since it made me “feel like an organ grinder’s monkey put on display.” The fact that this same teacher taught Drama and said to a couple other students, regarding my attitude, that he thought I was gay or something, didn’t exactly endear me to him either.
A year following, at graduation, I won small monetary awards for both Creative Writing and Drama, a win which left both me and my parents flabbergasted. (The graduation ceremony was equally bizarre since all the graduates wore silver gowns for the school’s anniversary. In the bright sun, we appeared to be a forcefield of aluminium broadcasting to space aliens.)
At my mother’s suggestion I wrote a thank you letter to the local paper which sponsored the awards. Panic of a strange magnitude occurred within me afterwards when they actually went ahead and published the damned pretentious thing. Shortly following I received a phone call from a fellow graduate complimenting me on my vocabulary. As he was talking, a picture of the school’s fetid locker room enveloped my head. I recalled that this phone caller was there when one of the bullies I dealt with on a regular basis walked by and gobbed a large ball of mucus on my cheek. I recalled that neither I nor the phone caller had said or done anything back at the time. Questioning his motives, and having no idea what to say, I kept the phone call non-committal and brief.
B.J. Gupta said that “Man is a social animal,” but by the time I left high school I much preferred the company of animals and wanted as little to do with anything social as possible. More than twenty years later, despite observations from loved ones, I can’t say this point of view has particularly changed all that much. I have often joked with my sister that when I die mourners and pallbearers will have to be rented for the occasion.
Time moves. Geography shifts. Both can go at the pace of slow ooze or a sudden cataclysm. Events and species, religions and politics, ride on the currents of either. I have no idea why I started this essay except to try and get a clue as to why and where I am in this specific geography and time. I also partially lied in that last paragraph. In addition to solitude, I have knowingly sought companionship and love in ways which entailed a sociability (or lack skill-wise) comprised of more than dragging someone by the hair back into my cave. A person can at least set down a bear rug first and invite another to the movies.
The somewhat murky idea of acquiring an audience for my writing and art must have come into existence at some point as well, but it remains a hard battle not to want a J.D. Salinger sort of privacy should the audience part ever occur. Furthermore, to show others whose views you once felt captive to that you have made it is most likely a common fantasy universally, but I believe that it is just the icing on the cake after a great deal of sweat and effort. In other words, success may not be the best revenge, but it helps. Yes, making money for one’s efforts is powerful impetus regarding creative ambitions, but I truly have a hard time fathoming that most creative individuals are predominantly driven by either of those factors. As athletes find release through sports for what is pent-up physically and emotionally, the creative force is equally athletic and a pushing of one’s self. If someone of Michael Jordan’s prowess was born in Haiti he would still have the skill, though not necessarily the salary or acclaim, and he would still most likely have the inclination to shoot hoops. He would have that need, that determination.
“I have no idea why I am publishing this. I never thought poetry could be so noble,” was one of the oddest acceptance notices I ever received from a magazine. Noble? The poem, “Home Movie,” was written from the viewpoint of a teenager whose family’s personal devastation is caught on film while their house collapses during a flood. Nothing about it did or does strike me as particularly grand. It was simply a way of dealing with what I found disturbing, a way of working through the emotional resonance. Just about anything I’ve ever produced, even if not derived from turmoil, has come from the same place, this essay included. Still, it occurs to me that the notion of success as the best revenge, the I’ll show them syndrome, for me, is more about wanting to show whoever them is how something feels, my creativity stemming from a place of wanting to change hearts and minds, or at least reach them.
Is that nobility or a matter of arrogance and control issues? Certainly it is gratifying when another soul can relate to my work on a personal level, and I have been fortunate in occasionally receiving supportive notes or having others say, “Thank you, you have expressed something I have felt too.” Preaching to the choir, however, is not entirely what I ever aimed for. A desire to cool the fires of those who would burn down the choir’s homes is also part of the package. On the delusion front this must be akin to believing I can raise peacocks at the North Pole.
“You must have it made” and “How did you do it?” are also notes I have received from those most likely working on their own crafts as hard as I do. It’s terrible that often one of my first impulses has been to laugh at the irony of it all, and I hate to disappoint them, yet wind up being honest about how I work a day job, how any income I’ve made from creativity has not been enough for a bus ride from Timbuktu to Topeka. Then I try to give addresses where they can perhaps submit their own work.
Reading the overleaf of a book jacket and how an author is grateful to his/her writing circle, agent, team of editors, or grant-giver, I’ve made similar mistakes in assumption. There is a degree of envy in this, an envy which is entirely useless since certainly the author has had his/her fair share of heartaches too, and actually what I feel for such an author is a large degree of awe. I mean it. Where do people find the time, energy and inclination to utilize support systems? Where and how?
This line of questioning is most likely exactly what keeps me working a day job. This, and a not always healthy skepticism rooted in the knowledge that of all the books published, let alone written, a hundred years ago, very few of them are still actively read. Yet did they not serve some purpose while eyes and minds were actually absorbing the print? Was it really all for naught even to the person who did the work? Why be so ashamed of obscurity anyway? You can do what you want without someone looking over your shoulder. It’s not like the obscure are stealing the rubber tips off of canes.
Obscurity though, for someone in the arts, does have a stigma of failure. It’s true, we try to develop harder skins, lick our wounds, revise, refine, retune, and go into the ring again, but time and again there is always the sense that the bottom may fall out, and that we will go with it. Every few years I attempt to overcome my nausea and reread, re-polish the novels I have not yet dumped in a burn barrel. I try to create flow in what dialogue I think is stilted, condense what sentences strike me as not quite tight, but when remembering rejections from publishers and agents I question if I am being realistic or just passing time with airy castles. I question what will be the thing to break the spell or if it is cast in bronze by now. I question that if the spell should be broken, will my spirit again feel broken too, or will I breathe a sigh of relief and count my blessings for the first time with absolute clarity?
Sometimes while starting or immersed in a piece of writing or art the sense of futility I have simply floors me. Then the wondering about what wrong turns I most likely took rises up like a bog. Maybe I shouldn’t have dropped out of college when I was convinced I would have a nervous breakdown if I did not. Yes, maybe I should not have listened to my gut thump. And maybe I should not have snorted and thought that professor a nut job and wondered where the money was going to come from when she suggested I should try to get into Harvard. And maybe I should not have rolled my eyes when that editor said my poem, which she was rejecting, was of New Yorker caliber, and I couldn’t figure out if she meant it as a compliment or if she had a clue herself. Maybe when a childhood friend turned 40 and threw herself a party I should not have cringed when she picked up a microphone and started lauding the accomplishments of others in the room, mentioning how I had two art shows that past year. Maybe I should not have thought to myself, Yes, one was part of a members show where I paid money to be a member so therefore I was paying to hang and see my own work, and the other show was in a gallery connected to a theatre where they had a play going on and matrons of the place kept saying “ssh” when a friend tried to ask me about my art. Maybe I should not have also thought I take medication so as not to have delusions of grandeur and here my friend is, well-meaning, but fighting against the pull of my Prozac, and aren’t there enough people running around thinking they’re all Kings of Siam?
Yes, you see where that line of bog doubt goes. Glug, glug.
Other times when starting or immersed in a piece of writing or art, even if exhausted and feeling hemmed-in, a tailwind comes up and then I think, maybe, if there is one, this is what heaven is like. All those people scribbling blogs and posting to Facebook, and all those submitting to zines and making studios out of spare rooms, are a part of it, are at least trying to be, and maybe some are finding a place beyond wars, beyond genocide, beyond ecological breakdown, prejudice and petty cattiness. Yes, perhaps we are even finding a place to belong while getting in touch with those subjects and making statements about them, being heroes to ourselves and one another without even realizing it because that’s the only way we can keep on believing there’s a point to another day. Perhaps in this age of technological changes for communication we are all internet presences, flickering diodes of energy and light, sending out messages, a message to, a message for the planet.
Who will read this? Who will care? Will it be someone I know? Someone I can trust? Someone in the next cubicle? Will they scorn? Snigger with others? Call me faggot? Am I being put on a watch list? Is this dangerous? Can a stranger be not so strange, and cyberspace become physical? A presence, and of intimacy? I know I do not know, but I need, I want.
Stephen Mead is an outsider multi-media artist and writer. Since the 1990s he’s been grateful to many editors for publishing his work in print zines and eventually online. He is also grateful to have managed to keep various day jobs for the Health Insurance. Poetry on the Line, Stephen Mead