I'm a late starter. I kept my virginity long past its expiration date, chose for decades to drink rather than drive, and didn't become a dad until age 43. And tho I began writing at 24, I don't believe I actually reached my stride until last year.
I look at the ways in which some great poets have written about their cities: Sandburg's Chicago, O'Hara's New York, Bukowski's Los Angeles. Each has a way of making the city palpable. And I look back at my Philadelphia, the one I remember from the 1960s. Perhaps no longer Workshop to the World, but still shipwright, street corner hawker of roasted chestnuts, bar town, newspaper town, factory town. That Philadelphia is easy to put into words. It was a place where you could choose a person at random from the crowds on Chestnut street, ask their occupation, and they'd tell you. And it would be something you could understand: Builder, banker, nurse.
But then came the service economy, and with it, yuppies. They were nice easy targets. But I preferred the company of drunks--being one myself I suppose that's natural. Drunks are a human universal. Since there have been humans and fermentation, there have been drunks. A drunk is both a shaman and a child. A derelict and a truth teller. A walking apocalypse and a clown prince. But that life, for me, became unsustainable. When I quit the booze, the poems became bitter and crazed. More of a Unabomber manifesto. So I put poetry aside as well.
After a decade, like a wayward falcon, the poetry returned, landing calmly on my wrist as tho it had only been away for a momentary loop above the pond. So there they were, all these words, pouring out of my fingers. So I went back to the streets to see what was there.
What I found was an ocean of petty vanities, mirror-gazers, people who worried over the purchase of a pair of shoes as if it were a new home. Walking thru the city, I used to carry a notepad and compose poems on the fly. It was easier then, when the faces were not bowing to palmtop devices, when you could meet a person's eyes with yours. Now, public space is, in a sense, no longer public. Each travels in a personal city-state of perpetual shopping, and email. And then there are the cellphone conversations one cannot help but overhear. For the most part, self-important nonsense. Thoughts that, until cellphones, people usually kept to themselves. now these too leak into the public space. Most of the conversations one is forced to overhear would best be carried out in private.
Personalized technology carries with it a silent "I deserve"... as in: "I deserve to be able to walk down the street without looking where I'm going. So just go around me." Needless to say, none of this helps build a sense of brotherhood or self-sacrifice. And the worst part: we're not nearly as interesting as we think we are.
In the course of my travels, I began an exploration of street photography, and from that, began to document my encounters with the people I met. So, how does one write poetically about the average tech-obsessed, self-absorbed service economy citizen? I honestly don't know. I can easily approach a homeless person and engage in a 20-minute conversation about life, politics, boxing, spirituality, addiction, sobriety, music, etc., but ask a work-a-day stranger anything (let alone for a portrait) and you get a raft of questions: Who are you? What're you going to use it for? I won't see this on the Internet, will I? Everyone is so fearful. Fearful of being mocked online, or of being outed in some way.
QUICK PRIORITY COMPARISON:
Homeless person concern: "Don't get my face in the photo, I have an outstanding bench warrant."
Work-a-day Joe concern: "Don't get the cigarette in the picture, my mom doesn't know I still smoke."
My solution thus far has been to pretend the year is 1987. That there is no such thing as an ironic mustache, a Seg-Way, a Blackberry, an iPhone, or Youtube. To try in photos and poems to catch those increasingly rare moments when we stop being shopping jibba-jabba machines and allow ourselves to be human. Perhaps I'll be dragged into the 2010s. Someday. Maybe in 2025.