Answered Prayers: The 90s

In the days before the arrival in my life of Mary Harju and Abby Heller-Burnham, I approached high art tasks as a kind of lone gunman in the world. This led to a sense of isolation which was difficult to conquer. The determination was there (and redemptive) enough, however, so that a body of work was in place by the time they showed up. During the four years I spent in State College ('94-'98), I gradually migrated from a disposition rather casual in regards to the more serious side of art to one more itself more serious. What I might be reading at any time in State College was miscellaneous— not yet ready for the Romantics and Milton, the life-rafts I found included the French Symbolists (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine) and other texts in their tradition, not to mention the philosophy texts I was compelled to study in school. The Symbolist sense of the hallucinogenic or the phantasmagoric— that human life consists of a series of dream-like vignettes, looped together only by visionary consciousness— informs Answered Prayers and Willard Preachers, the collection of the best of what I wrote in Nineties State College. Here, we see the lone gunman sensibility shot through also with a youthful fascination with intoxicants which I had going then. 

On a life-level, my relationship with Jennifer Strawser, which occupied most on '96, was about two renegade kids being banditos in the world. It was us, we felt, and our total destruction of class and sexual boundaries in all directions, against everyone. Written from the perspective of a young poet maudit, who, moreover, had reasons to feel a deep sense of foreboding, Room 510 Atherton Hilton and The dawn broke over our bodies both make the case for a sensibility impressed with both an ambiance of enchantment and of damnation. Jennifer herself wasn't exactly creative, the way Mary and Abby were to be; but she was a punk, a rebel, and also a soul tormented by a lot of depth she didn't know what to do with. She was also a blonde goddess, and one of the bigger sirens in State College history; as was Emily Dunlop, the heroine of Perfect. Maria Gingerich, who adorns the cover of the book, was too, though a brunette.

Lone gunman though I was, my years in State College were informed also by a compelling interest in theater. The reason was a collective on campus known as Outlaw Playwrights. Outlaw Playwrights, every Thursday night at 11:15 pm, in a black box theater in the main theater building near North Halls where I lived, presented a one-act play written by...whoever! Sometimes by theater majors, sometimes by theater graduate students, sometimes by lone gunmen (or girls) such as myself from anywhere in the State College populace. It took me a few years to become integrated enough with the Outlaws crowd to have them begin producing my one-acts. I spent those years experimenting with different approaches to writing for theater. The approach I settled on was an experimental one— to push at the boundaries of what theater writing could do or be, rather than settle for the representation of conventional dramatic situations. Dada Circus, produced in September '98 a few months before I permanently left State College, is not exactly French Symbolism put on the stage. Rather, it's a hodge-podge of different approaches, meant to convey a sense of comic absurdity, and also the shadow of the existential, of what it means to "act" in the world. Mortuary Puppies, produced in February '99, by which time I was living in Manhattan, is a linguistic free-for-all, which I invented out of thin air. What it explores is the dimensions and dimensional weirdness of pure language, and poetic language, fused with a dramatic imperative, but an unspecific one. It was an experiment, to see if poetry and abstraction could work onstage. From what I was told in '99, it was more or less a success.

The lone gunman era of the 90s was marked by ambivalence. I had committed myself to an artist's life-path, but distinctions between the high and the low were still tentative for me. In terms of concrete guidance I might've received on these levels from other human beings, there was none. I had no tutors or mentors. Because that space remained a blank one, my life as a writer and a creative artist was about coping with loneliness, and feeling my way along. By 1997, still based in State College, I had made the acquaintance of Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum, who was about to begin publishing seriously, including poems set in the 90s. When Abby and Mary arrived in the early Aughts, also, it was easier both to feel warmth and to express warmth to others. Others arrived as well, compadre figures who made Aughts Philly such a vital ride. Yet, the weird luminosity and demented stoner quality of 90s State College, illuminated by a few warm flash-points, was fertile ground for producing some writing of note.