It’s been a week or two since I posted the first of four essays from Dan Waber’s What I Did Today Chapbook series (published by chapbookpublisher.com but, as it turns out, not available from them – to get a copy you have to contact one of the folks in the particular issue you want. For instance, if you wanted a copy of the book with essays by Jim Feast, Carl Watson, Susan Scutti and myself, you should contact one of us. Or simply keep reading Sensitive Skin, cuz eventually they’ll all show up here.)
To reiterate: each text is roughly two thousand words long, and deals with one day in the life of that person. Because I was the inviter of this iteration, I was able to choose three friends who were heavily involved in the Downtown writing scene. You’ve previously had a chance to meet Jim Feast, and the heavy lifting he does for Barney Rosset, Gary Null, Clayton Patterson and Ralph Nader. Now you’ll have the opportunity to get to know Susan Scutti. Susan is hooked up with an ever growing population of writers that cross geographical and stylistic spectrums. She’s friends with The Idiom writers in New Jersey, and has run reading series at the Bowery Poetry Club, A Gathering of Tribes and Otto’s Shrunken Head in New York City. She has several published books; the most recent being The Commute, a collection of poems.
What I Did Today: Saturday, February 19, 2011
by Susan Scutti
I wake before nine and with winter stiffness in my legs I walk to the bathroom and quickly use the toilet, wash my face and brush my teeth. Stepping into the kitchen area (I live in a studio), I turn on the stove — it is gas and makes a clicking sound until I adjust the flame — to heat the kettle. I ready the coffee cone and eat my usual breakfast (yogurt) standing at the sink. When the kettle screams, I pour steaming water over the coffee grinds, wait for the cup to fill, and then I add half-and-half before I return to bed and prop myself on pillows while I read (The Pig Did It by Joseph Caldwell) and drink coffee and daydream. An hour wanders by; maybe another half hour disappears behind it. I stretch, finally ready to begin my day.
Staring at the crush of clothes in my closet, I think of my mother. A pale, quiet woman embarrassed by her tall height, she espoused a philosophy of “few clothes but good ones” and whenever she went shopping, a train of six kids sweeping behind her, she would search for bargains among the quality items found in the more expensive stores. Despite my mother’s example, cheap and quality items mingle with impunity in my closet. After one or two misfires, I am satisfied with my improvised outfit so I unlock the two bolts on my apartment door, step into the hallway and walk to the full-length mirrors which frame the elevator doors. I have chosen a favorite gauzy dress purchased years ago in a boutique on University Place. Over the dress, I’ve slipped a skirt given to me by an ex-boyfriend, a former boxer trying to kick a drug habit; and, because the temperature has dipped, I’ve pulled on a sweater for warmth. As I twist before the mirror appreciating the colors, shades of cherry and burgundy and orange and walnut, it occurs to me I’ve never combined these particular items in the past. (And somehow this is fitting for a day when people from different facets of my past will merge.)
Descending the subway stairs, some vague paranoia wafts around me like Pig-Pen’s dirt cloud. Haven’t I seen the younger, jagged-seeming woman who passes me on the stairs somewhere before? Why does that guy, speaking into a phone, stare at me? I board the train and stand near a woman and her two grade school daughters. I take a deep breath and feel my mind empty as I observe the hair ribbons and patent leather shoes and the wide, folded hands resting in the mother’s lap. As I switch trains at Fourteenth Street, walking towards the L, I am thinking how, earlier, as I read the news, flipping from one online newspaper to the next, my computer’s URL bar danced with text; did that passing stream of content contain the words “behave” and “passivity?” Is my computer subliminally directing my actions? Now as I cross the station, moving from one train to the next, I am thinking that paranoia flows, like an alternating current, with an opposite awareness: an awareness that such feelings are sick, unhealthy. (Or maybe just ridiculous.) Are my paranoid thoughts ideas for the sci-fi story I’ve been working on? The waiting train is nearly empty. I take a seat and watch various passengers enter and arrange themselves. The others wear somber clothes and blank expressions. Restless, I turn to face a new direction; just then the signal sounds and doors close with mechanical deliberation. Again the underground journey, again I climb littered stairs to the street.
Life Café sits across the street from Tompkins Square Park on the northeast corner. Its menu is reminiscent of a diner although it lacks the awe-inspiring breadth of possibilities found in such an establishment; its bar is substantial and made of some dark-complected wood. If you are game and willing to walk through a grungy passageway, you will find an enclosed garden with additional seating in the back. As I approach the entrance from Avenue A, I see Ron Kolm through the window. When I first understood Ron, watching him drink his white russians, seeing him laugh within the core of our misfit crowd, I recognized he was a Razumihin, the writer/publisher friend of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. If you could broadcast Ron’s spirit, regimes would crumble, submarines in distant oceans would fall to ocean’s floor. It’s unimaginable that someone like Ron exists, and yet he does. Ron sits now with Mike Lindgren, Leia Pellot, Jennifer Hill and Dan Waber, the latter two poets, writers, and publishers who are visiting from Pennsylvania. Soon our conversation is moving from topic to topic, a recent museum show, a common friend, and then we settle into a discussion of alternative distribution networks for publications and books, of which this, this chapbook you hold in your hands and read now, is one. (YOU ARE AN ALTERNATIVE NETWORK.) Our waitress snaps two shots with Mike’s camera and the results reveal her talent: each of us appears in an attractive light. Mike generously pays for our lunch, we take more photos outside, and then we separate into two groups: Mike and Leia head uptown, while Jennifer, Dan, Ron and I start off in the opposite direction.
We are walking south to Steve Cannon’s house, also known as Tribes, where in the early nineties I participated in the Stoop, a workshop led by both Steve and Bob Holman. I first met both these guys at Nuyorican Poets Café sometime in the late 80s. Bob was the MC and Steve used to sit and smoke at the end of the bar, yelling, “Read the mother-fuckin’ poem!” whenever a poet on stage would talk on and on about the definition of a single word in the third stanza. Afraid to be heckled, I figured my best bet was to introduce myself to the Professor (an honorific bestowed by Bob in microphone voice from the stage). Because of Steve I now possess a strict sense of stage comportment and no, I have not been cowed; I believe, as Steve does, that what matters to a poem should be IN the poem. Steve’s house is also headquarters for A Gathering of the Tribes, his art organization, which sponsors readings, a journal, art exhibitions, music… and the assembly magazine, Far Out Further Out Out of Sight, the purpose of our visit today. (Assembly magazine: a group of writers, each contributing 150 xerox copies of a single page of poetry/prose, gather to collate their work and then staple it together to form a zine.)
On our way to Steve’s, our small gang passes Laurence’s house where I once, twice, three times party-ed with Lisa Renko and others on New Year’s Eve. In the storefront attached to that same house, Jim Feast hosted a reading series, Chez Rollo, where various writers read from their novels in progress. (My novel centered around the lives of three guys who long ago dealt drugs together while still in college.) Every Lower East Side block is infused with my memories; remembering now the potential of that plot, my strokes of portraiture within that story, I feel sad to have not finished the book. I got swept up in making a living. I did not take myself as seriously as I might have. I did not believe in myself — or my friends — instead I dwelled on the rejections I received from publishers.
We arrive at Steve’s house and enter without knocking. Nicca Ray’s smile, like a South American dictator, disappears any residual sorrow or paranoia completely. As I glance beyond Nicca, I see familiar and unfamiliar others already beginning to stack their xerox copies of poems and prose: among them, George Spencer and Robert Mueller, editors of our humble enterprise; Stan Marcus, Jill Rapaport, Jeffrey Grunthaner, Mark Sonnenfeld, John Marcus Powell, Robert Roth, and Eve Packer. Ron mans the stapler, soon the real work begins, and as we gather poems from each pile arranged in a circle around Steve’s back room, conversations spiral and swirl, lift and fall. This is union: this simple work, a common happiness.
Intense gusts of wind cause us to stagger as we wend our way from Steve’s house to the subway. As our small subset of the zine (Dan, Jennifer, Stan, Robert Mueller and I) pass Nuyorican Poets Café, Jennifer and I begin a conversation about her daughter, an almost-twenty-year-old girl who bakes croissant and makes earrings out of credit cards. Helen is genuinely lovely. Now, the Hell’s Angels headquarters looms and another memory surfaces: after 9-11, the Angels hung an American flag above the center of Third Street, the rope on which it was draped stretching from their building to another across the street. Robert and Stan cross the street ahead of us and I notice how Robert, a poet, steps so lightly he gives an impression of un-groundedness. Before we reach the subway, Stan separates from our group and we who remain board the 6; next, Robert and I transfer to the L; one stop later he disembarks to take the 1 while I continue on alone to the A. Home! Time to decompress for a couple of hours. I eat a salad of cucumbers, avocado, green peppers, tomatoes and sardines. I read headlines and answer email. I absorb one poem from our beautiful, homemade zine.
I met Brett Zweiman near the end of last summer when I went to see a friend’s band perform at Funkadelic, a nearby recording studio that hosts jam sessions. Spinning at the center of that particular pandemonium, Brett was the guy making everything happen. (Yet a woman friend who reads palms would describe him as “an old soul.”) Now, as Brett helps me set up, as we plug in microphones and rearrange chairs, I tell him about the featured poets, Demetrius Daniel, Jennifer Hill, Emily Keller and Dan Waber. I have party jitters, nervous about an audience arriving for this fifth incarnation of Sonic Verse, which boasts an open mic as well as features. Add to that the fact that tonight, for the first time, I will play synthesizer behind the readers.
At any real poetry reading, a queer kind of space is established where the implicit social contract ordains listening without judgment. And yet a curious, at times inhuman lack of reaction — lack of compassion — may also occur. I’ve seen poets shout or whisper their violent thoughts and suicide attempts, homelessness and debts, I’ve heard all manner of uncharted human hungers, sometimes with no visible reaction from the audience at all. Everything’s cool, we suggest, it’s all part of human experience. And because we say so, it is. Tonight the features and open readers will weave a verbal tapestry of mortal beauty. When Demetrius reads (and I play synth behind him), it feels like he and I are pitching our consciousness into some third place — not his mind, not my mind, but some in-between space. Next, Jennifer reads a haunting poem set within a landscape of the coal-mined country from which she comes while Emily delivers plaintive observations in verse. Then, Dan stirs the blood with rousing protest. Round and round they go, voices spilling night’s ink. During the open, a tall, college-aged woman offers a painful story of hospitalization. When reading ends, she and I talk about the concurrence of mental health and mental illness while others drift in and out of the room.
Dan, Jennifer and I eat a brief meal at a new and inauthentic Irish pub on Thirty-fifth Street — well, in one respect it is the real deal: a huge and hugely loud group of co-workers occupy the next-door table. We part with hugs on Sixth Avenue. As I walk west, a fierce wind chills me so thoroughly, I duck into Penn Station; at least for one block I can walk safe from freezing gusts. Here memory asserts itself with the greatest force; this station was and is my first vision of New York City. I grew up in New Jersey and here, among the homeless curled in corners, among those who wait for trains, among hockey fans and basketball fans and concert-goers, daytrippers and commuters, I first glimpsed my future home.