Tuesday, November 29, 2005


There are several dichotomies that have never made much sense to me before like poet and writer, arts and entertainment, or arts and letters. Last time I explored my newly found understanding of the difference between a poet and a writer. The answer is simple, different muses. There is a muse for prose and a muse for poetry. My prose muse is a thinker and storyteller. I enjoy her company.

I do not always enjoy the company of my poetic muse. This muse slips thin bamboo ideas under your fingernails, forcing them, ever so slowly, twisting, torturing until something approaching perfection in verse is produced. Since no one is ever perfect you can understand why many poets lead tortured lives. That damn muse just won’t leave them alone. I’m sure the wards of McLean’s Hospital are full of people with noisy muses incessantly chatting in their heads. There are times when only drugs and alcohol will make her SHUT the F**K UP!

I personally prefer wine for the purposes of muting my poetic muse. Wine seems to civilize her, rendering her more or less harmless if a bit maudlin. On the other hand my prose muse used to love Scotch and water, neat. That old lush has an ulcer now and only drinks Scotch socially. All in all coffee is still the over all drink of choice when summoning my muses to perform.

The son of a friend of mine is the chef at a restaurant in Fort Tryon Park, in “upstate New York City,” called New Leaf Café. It’s part of Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project. Yes Bette is the boss and she checks up on New Leaf about once a month. The chefs name is James Bellicchi and I’ve known him since he was a little kid. He comes from a family of chefs. His mother is a well-known new-age “macrobiotic” chef; his uncles own a collection of individual restaurants and another uncle one created the “Not your Average Joe’s” chain.

Mother and son have been trying for a couple of years to get a TV show off the ground. James is a classically trained chef while his mother, Cathleen is an organically trained chef, whatever that means. What James would happily throw away, his mother would make into soup. That’s the synopsis of the TV show. Knowing the two of them, a TV show would be a hoot, BAM! Why am I telling you this and what does it have to do with the muse? Well there is a cooking muse I suppose but this digression is really only background for a conversation I had at the bar at New Leaf Café.

Whenever I’m in NYC I make a point of stopping by the New Leaf Café on Thursday nights. Not only do I get treated like a king (James likes to show off) but they also have a jazz band with a smoking hot singer whose “There is a rose in Spanish Harlem” sends chills up and down my spine.  I’ve been there twice and have never had a better time anywhere. This last time I met the band and a friend of the band named Leah Siegel.

I love to sit at a bar and talk to everyone within range. You get to meet people you would never otherwise meet. In this case it was Leah. Leah is a hot new singer of new-age rock. She was there to hear “her band” play backup for a friend, the sultry singer. After the cursory chatter she asked me, “Are you in the arts?” That stopped me cold for a few minutes. Several years ago at a poetry reading someone asked me “Are you a poet?” I had the same reaction. I was nonplused.

I make my living writing and teaching. While my writing is certainly creative no one would call it art. I write semi-technical reports, semi-text books and I teach various aspects of Linux, a computer operating system that’s arguably the best on the planet. I think of myself as a computer geek before I think of myself as an artist or poet. Hard core computer geeks think I’m a just a tech writer, a position that has all the luster and cache of the parts man in an auto body shop. So am I “in the arts?” Well No! Am I a “poet?” Hardly, a “poet” is a title one should not bestow upon oneself. But I am an artist, I protest!

Back in another life (mid to late 1970’s) I was a “commercial artist”, an “art director.” I mostly put together magazines and books for places like Sail Magazine and MIT Press. I was an artist, but when people talk of “the arts” they always mean the fine arts. A “commercial artist” is well below a junk jewelry artisan in ranking among the finer arts and a “tech writer”, has the rank, status and cache well below a poet, author, journalist, or advertising hack. I’m still an artist; I am in “the arts.”

These distinctions are artificial, of course. The creative act is. There are snots who turn their noises up at anything that isn’t a fine art of one kind or another but these people are usually consumers of art not its producers. Producers of fine art, as well as the Madison Avenue hack know how hard the creative process is. Neither would seriously question the “integrity” of the other in private. Posing is for public consumption.

I do not know why those who do not produce art can be so possessive of it. They are usually the ones that make the distinction between “art” (and we must mean fine art) and “entertainment” as though art is art only if it is not also entertainment. Apparently art (fine art) requires a tortured soul, as does poetry. Thus poet and writer form a dichotomy that can be equated with arts and letters and arts and entertainment. Note that the left side of the equation requires pain and is judged to be a fine art while the right side earns the money and is generally dismissed as a crass, lesser, more commercial art.

Since Leah’s question came from a fellow artist I realized that yes I could say that I was “in the arts” without having to explain. Her question was simple, “Do you have a muse?” Having thought about it for a long time I can say for certain, “yes, several.”

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