Why did you do it, Michael?
May 2, 1980
I walked back from the art building with Michael Alexander, arguing about his and Joel’s decision to leave out the college’s lesser poets for the readying they’ve planned.
Since my arrival here last September, I recognized different social groups populating the writer’s community: old school, new school, art school and others.
Joel Lewis, Mike Reardon, and Ed Smith are part of the old school, survivors from the elder days of the 1970s Beatnik nostalgic crowd that have returned to campus after a brief bout with the real world in order to get their masters.
Older and supposedly wiser, this crew sees itself as following in the sacred footsteps of the Beat Generation. Some even have made plans for a summer trip to the Beat workshop in Colorado.
Most of this crew comes from a narrow ridge along the Palisades such as North Bergen and Weehawken, and look to New York City as their great artistic hope, hanging out with the poets from St. Mark’s Church.
They carry back to WPC an air of superiority and resentment, and often act as if they have already achieved artistic success and that the rest of us should admire them for it, in much the same way they admire the beats.
This is difficult for some of the next generation to swallow since each new year brings in a new generation of artists, each seeking to leave his or her own mark on this world.
College is supposed to be a safe haven for artists, a nourishing and nurturing place protected from critical reality to some degree.
While most of us expected to find some kind of artistic pecking order, we all believed the power elite ended with graduation, and those of us on the bottom moved up a rung to eventually take our turn at the top.
Since coming here last September, I noticed that writers tend to cluster around three departments: English, Art and Communications.
Each of these seems to control one of the publishing organs: the literary magazine, the school newspaper and the writer’s club.
Essence, the college literary magazine, is controlled by Bob Nickas and Scott McGraff, who hang out mostly in the art building and seem to have the most trouble dealing with the return of the old school. Since the magazine is the ultimate goal of many of us, McGraff and Nickas serve as the arbitrators of literary tastes. While these two accept submissions from Lewis, Reardon and Smith, they do their best to minimize the influence of old school over the rest of the editorial content.
For most part, the old school has no real place in the three artistic communities here – although Lewis and Reardon appear to have a close relationship to Glenn Kenny, the god of school newspaper. So at times, the old school takes refuge in the one outlet that is the most open to everybody, the writer’s club – which includes the literary efforts of newspaper people such as Sue Merchant and on occasion, Glenn Kenny himself. But for the most part, we are the least superficial, a gathering of the common people each struggling to further his or her art.
Lewis and Smith tend to lecture us when they come to the meetings, in their vain attempt to give us insight and wisdom gleaned from their brief encounter with the wider world.
I always saw Michael Alexander as one of us, since he came to college with a perspective totally different from the literary snobs that preceded him.
A would be punk-rocker, Alexander drew the distain of Professor Richard Nickson immediately because he refused to bow down before the literary gods Nickson offered in his classes. Nickas and McGraff tolerate Alexander, but don’t like him any better than Nickson does.
Michael, for his part, aches to be accepted by the old school crowd, often hinting at receiving an invitation to join Lewis and Reardon at a St. Mark’s reading – which they decline to give. I haven’t told Michael, but they invited me instead. Because I knew I would never feel comfortable there, I refused.
I suppose Michael’s desire to be part of the crowd explains that happened this week, when Michael hooked up with Lewis and then refused to allow any of us ordinary poets to take part, claiming none of us were competent enough to read with the big boys.
I read the announcement I was crushed, as I learned most of the lesser poets did when I spoke to them later.
Michael deepened the wound when he suggested I might cover the event for the school ne3wspaper.
I’m still uncertain as to whether this was a sincere gesture or a means of using me to broadcast his acceptance in an Old School event.
The wound goes deeper than merely my own bruised ego.
I learned a valuable life lesson about arts and politics and how easily a communist can become a capitalist if he gets the right offer.
But it is Groucho, not Karl Marx from whom I draw comfort: I wouldn’t want to belong to any club who would have someone like me as a member.