By Dean Haspiel
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed sitting at the head of a long dinner table at the mansion until I was granted a second residency at the legendary artists colony in upstate New York. It wasn’t because I demanded an audience or that the seat positioned me in a way to judge my subjects; fellow writers, artists, filmmakers and composers, like a Game of Thrones. No, I simply enjoyed my perch to survey the lay of the land and expose myself to as many different conversations as possible. I craved the psychedelic fruits a dinner table like this one would bear. Despite the works that recommended us, we were a timid yet curious bunch with a communal commitment to communicate with strangers. With the rotating nature of residencies and artists coming and going, the chances of bonding with people are rare but it happens. Every concentration of artists yields a particular brand of eccentricity and every eccentric has its encounters…
There was the buzz-headed poet from a coal mining town with a thousand yard sneer whose first grizzled words to me were “I know who…YOU…are,” while sipping from the curled straw of a carnival cup filled with vodka. Transfixed to uncover what prompted his ire, we discussed the work of mine he was familiar with and danced around the pain of a mutual pal he was at odds with. I have to admit I was energized to have been cornered by this confrontation my first night. Where most folks traded inaugural pleasantries and basked in the serene vista from the patio, I was thrown head first into the lions den. Buzz had dispensed polite jests for blunt jousts to get to the meat of matters or, more precisely, to suck out the bone marrow and spit it out. A few days later, Buzz gave a reading and his poetry was so bleak it was beautiful. The way he composed a sentence stung my soul. I found myself coping with the apocalypse of his family disasters and heartbreaks by crying while concurrently laughing like when my father took me to see a revival of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” when I was ten years old. Shortly thereafter, Buzz gave me an excerpt from the memoir he was writing and, upon reading it, I was artistically castrated. I nearly packed my bags and hailed a bus to I’m Not Worthyville. Like fire, the wheel, and refrigeration, Buzz was a revelation. A word warrior dispatched from the annals of the suicidal heart to warn us of the cost of love and life.
Then, there was the shirtless poet with the Greg Brady hair who wondered why I sometimes spoke about myself in second-person as “Deenie-Weenie.” I told him it was important to bring levity to most any social situation and what better way to break ice and set the tone than to make fun of myself. Plus, there was something about the swagger of my faux-bravado that made some people uncomfortable and I figured I would diffuse it by promoting a self-emasculating nickname. I proposed that vulnerability was the key to unlocking an honest discourse. When Greg Brady refused to play ping pong with me a second time because I “wasn’t good enough” for him, I felt insulted. Suddenly, honesty wasn’t my friend. The next time I sat at the dinner table he asked me why I didn’t call myself “Papa Weenie.” I asked “Why Papa? Is it because I’m sitting at the head of the table like a patriarch?” He corrected me and said, “Pop. A. Weenie. Get it?”
My writer’s room was set inside an enclosed pine porch in front of a butter pecan colored house with chocolate trim that I also slept in. My 180 degree view was mostly littered with trees that were spotted with hidden pockets of a dilapidated tennis court, the arts colony office, a blue house west of mine, and the swimming pool that a famous author kindly gifted to his future fellows. The same swimming pool I dove naked into my first night to shed shyness and make a splash. The same swimming pool I encountered an Asian poet who rubbed her leg against mine under the water and yelped, “Ew, I touched you. You’re disgusting!” I felt humiliated and publicly vowed, “I’m not going to talk to you for the entire time I’m here!” Like my scourge was supposed to banish her into the woods among the deer and ticks. It didn’t occur to me until I told a friend what happened that she might have been flirting and realized a retreat also allowed adults to regress back to elementary school when we fought basic attraction and acted like brats. There were a few residents who were polyamorous or in “open marriages” or experiencing the crisis of a romantic cross-road but I didn’t sense that coming from her. I gave her a second chance to be chums when she divulged personal stuff over lunch that humanized her and all animosity was lost. Artists are super-sensitive spirits who sometimes have a tough time with social formalities. Something I’m quite familiar with. I’ve joked that I have a special kind of social Tourette syndrome but I recognize that we are trying to make meaningful connections with our work despite public flustering. There being an ample platoon of poets spilling their guts at this particular residency, we turned our talk to poetry, which I know so little of. After I got a better sense of the medium, I suggested she curate a collection and call it “Embarrassing Humping Motions.” She laughed and declared all poetry was embarrassing humping motions.
A week later, the Asian poet gave a reading in the music room which was lined with pews and stained glass windows and looked like a church. I joked with her that I could warm up the crowd with a piano tune and she took me up on it. I don’t know how to perform anything musical but they chuckled when I mangled “Mary had a little lamb” three different ways. I challenged the composers in the music room to play their own versions. After the poet read variations of a Brother’s Grimm tale in sonnet form, one of the composers admitted that he’d been stirred by my challenge and I encouraged him to play. He tickled out a few brilliant versions of “Mary had a little lamb” and I pushed him to transition that tune into the Charlie Brown theme which he performed imperiously. After he played more flawless mash-ups of ‘Mary had a Charlie Brown,’ I prompted him to shift the mash-up into a third tune and he flexed his piano fingers with a rendition of something German and classical and fierce. We were mutually elated by the manna of improvisation.
There was a woman with black fringe bangs and cat-eyeglasses who looked like a Gothic version of Velma from Scooby Doo, who tried to woo small groups of people into live action role playing games with renditions of “Arm Sex,” where two consensual adults could sensually yet safely turn each other on. “It wasn’t really cheating,” she said. I tried to spark an arm sex threesome and recruited a charming writer from Chicago who looked like Hollywood actor Billy Zane’s test-tube baby, but he was more into the experiment than she was. Maybe it was too awkward or too humid? We were experiencing a hell of a summer heatwave accentuated by the might of a million mosquitoes, after all. Gothic Velma was a conflict of provocation and boundaries who promoted a quality control manifesto of come hither and halt. It was more frustrating than freeing. A week later, she read an excerpt from the memoir she was writing about her family history with a deadly hereditary disease and how she never thought about the future because she was told there probably wouldn’t be one, and I was crushed. Suddenly, her desire to LARP (Live Action Role Play) made sense. In my mind, she was trying to concurrently live multiple lives in the short time allegedly given to her, adding a hundred years to her compromised thirty. I’m not a religious man but I can easily slip into spirituality (thanks to the cosmic comic books of Jack Kirby) and, that night, I said a prayer for Gothic Velma that a tsunami of disease-free tomorrows would come flooding her way.
Whenever I was in a creative slump, I studied the squirrels, chipmunks, frogs, birds, hawk, geese, and groundhogs, who, as my girlfriend once identified, “look like they wear baggy pajamas,” as they scrambled and hunted for food on the green lawn mere inches from my writers window. I often saved my required lunch pail rations of cut carrots for the animals in hopes of making friends. And, when wild life failed to inspire me, I would ride a bike around the dirt trails and over to the back end of a horse race track and by the fish pond or walk over to the blue house and listen to the staccato of an old typewriter machine. There was an older author who had been coming here for 37-years and written episodes of a cult vampire soap opera in the 1960s, and now he was writing a libretto with one of the residencies composers. The ambiance of his typewriting was like an inspiring symphony of vowels tapping away at the air that made me imagine a time when the colony was a theater of competing typewriters. Fiction versus Non-fiction. Novels versus poetry. Truth versus lies, and so on. Before wireless laptop computers gave way to the the internet and spawned the time suck of social networking; where Googling your name became the birth control of creation.
One of my housemates was a Jamaican woman with gray dreadlocks who had been raised in England but eventually rejected its classism to return back to her roots in Jamaica, only to discover that she had none. We discussed the idea of home and she realized she never had one. I said to her, “Don’t they say home is where the heart is?” She politely nodded but had trouble reconciling the fact that she would be returning to a small plot of land with no electricity, no contact with the outside world, to write the rest of her second novel in long-hand form because she was no longer interested in a digitized earth. I could tell being at an artists colony was a great departure for her, as it was for me, but where I would return to my first world problems in Brooklyn, NY and catch up on a month of unpaid bills and unread comic books, she would be going back to a tent in Jamaica to dig in and grow her roots, one potato at a time.
Besides the author/poetry readings in the mansion, there were several evenings of open studios where visual artists showed their work and composers played their music. They almost always transitioned into dance parties and late night pool house shenanigans. But, rather than host a solo reading of my own, I decided to curate two impromptu salons in my living room space by assembling willing talent into sharing the stuff they were currently working on and/or read published work. There was the Nigerian with an infectious laugh who read a sad poem about the night his wife left him. There was a bearded Brazilian who could keep any object in the air for long stretches of time with the power of his feet and he read a poem about flowers and sex. There was Junior Bacchus, a Midwest poet whose right hand was a bottomless cocktail and he read ditties about flying chevrons and drinking with demigods. The pigtailed Australian cum Texan who sometimes wrote at the local coffee shop or steeped in lawn chair inspiration by the poolside, read poems about puberty and pop culture and how a particular horror movie recontextualized itself over the years. The blonde from Ohio read slaughterhouse poetry about her pedophile father and the drunks she slung drinks to. The sassy writer from Arkansas read a touching story about the rise and demise of an ex-lover and, later on, belted out a rebel yell that ricocheted around the 400-acre colony with her siren. Gothic Velma read more excerpts from her memoir including, in acute detail, the chilling medical procedure of an early1800s mastectomy that made people dizzy. Billy Zane’s charming test tube baby brought the room to a roar when he read an omnipotent story about loyalty. And, Buzz read select chapters from his memoir that gobsmacked the room. I read a few short stories about loss and the first scene from my screenplay. And, I convinced a kind composer, a maestro who generously gave me recordings of his haunting music, to reveal a funny artists colony myth to prove that just about anyone could spin a good yarn.
I don’t remember why but someone mentioned Wisconsin at the salon and it reminded me of a story my father told about our family that I never wrote down. So, I shared it. I was young and my native New York City family was invited by Wisconsin friends to their farm for a getaway weekend. It was the first time I ever saw the big blue sky from one end of my peripheral vision to the other. It was vast, all encompassing, and majestic. Born and bred in a city of skyscrapers, I’d never seen that much unexpurgated sky before. The Wisconsin family had a bespectacled son who was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a rare bone disease that basically makes it impossible for ten year old boys to throw baseballs or play hide-and-go-seek without snapping a femur or a rib or worse. Me and my brother literally walked on egg shells while trying to navigate fun with the brittle boy. The entire weekend the brittle boy kept teasing us about an amazing thing that had just arrived in town, as if it were the eighth wonder of the world, and he couldn’t wait to show us. He really sold the mystery well and I was beside myself with anticipation. Finally, the day arrives to reveal the amazing thing and our two families converge in town at a two-story tall department store. We enter the main hall and the brittle boy, so excited I was worried that he was going to break in half, points at the thing he’s been wanting to show us for days. I look. I can’t see it. I look towards my brother. He can’t see it, either. I look at my mother for counsel and she’s having trouble identifying it, too. I wanted to ask the brittle boy what I was supposed to be looking at but, instead, I looked at my father in hopes of anchoring me and he, too, was rudderless until, like a beacon of light, he saw what it was that was supposed to blow our minds and immediately pretended to be in shock and awe. I follow the train of discovery between my father’s eyes and the mysterious object and landed my own eyes upon…an escalator. A stairway machine that transports people between two floors (in case you didn’t know). I’d seen a hundred escalators back home in Manhattan. Where was the eighth wonder of the world? I stood mute and disappointed until my father began to “ooh and ahh” as he walked towards the escalator and rode it up and down with the brittle boy, relating to his joy. I learned an important lesson that day: one person’s escalator was another person’s blue sky.
My residency goal was to finish a few comic book deadlines, germinate new ideas, and revisit the feature length screenplay and novel I started writing the last time I was gifted the privilege to hide away from the world. A privilege to be among a small group of select artists blessed with a brief amount of time to develop their passions, scrutinize their work and themselves while being fed, sheltered and encouraged to create sans judgment by arts conscious patrons, dedicated organizers, and a generous staff. I thought more about home and what the Jamaican woman said about roots. And, that’s when I remembered a rap lyric by Eric B & Rakim, “It’s not where you’re from it’s where you’re at.” I was upstate at the prestigious artists colony but I’m from New York City. Who I am is what I make. I am my comic books, my essays, my unproduced screenplays, and my unfinished novel. I help rally small tribes of artists to sit together and share something unique whether it’s at a retreat in the mountains, online, or in a shared art studio in Brooklyn. I am the bashful jerk who jumps naked into the deep end of a pool to make new friends while making fun of myself so we can make fun of ourselves yet not be afraid to artistically express something meaningful and honest. And, that is my home. Wherever I am.
–Dean Haspiel, July 2013