Sunday, March 19, 2006

Why I Do It

When I was 19 years old I self-published a little chapbook of poetry titled "The Horrors of Humanity". Go ahead and try to find it. I dare ya. There were some really good pieces of poetry in it and, predictably, there were some that were complete and utter garbage. Later that year my friends Ted, Monica, and I put out a poetry chapbook together titled "Until It Breathes Again". This, I can honestly, say was a body of work I was immensely proud of and would still be proud of to this day. There were three stores on South Street that carried the books and another somewhere in the vicinity of Rittenhouse square. They all quickly sold out. I was shocked.

I had been haunting the poetry scene for a couple years by that point, reading my poetry, which had become surprisingly popular do as much to its controversial political standpoints as its graphic and erotic nature. So, I was not surprised when many from the poetry scene picked up the book. What surprised me was the number of people who didn't even know me and even people who knew me but whom I'd always assumed didn't like me and even people that I knew but didn't like, who bought the book. There was apparently something in what I had written that people could relate to.

One day I was standing at Penn's Landing, the harbor in Philadelphia, staring out at all the lights of the city and across into New Jersey and wondering if there was someone out there right then reading my thoughts as I had written them out on paper and knowing that it was entirely possible. That I could be right now communicating with someone I'd never met. I experienced such a sensation of connectedness, as if there was nothing separating all those people from me or me from them. I felt like I was suddenly a part of all of their lives. It was the most exhilarating feeling I'd had since the first time I fell in love. Now, I know that I was talking about maybe two hundred little cardboard chapbooks and not a national bestseller but still, there was the possibility that I had reached people. That they were now connected to me through my words. That people I didn't even know now knew me more intimately than some of my own family members. I have never forgotten that feeling.

Like a junkie chasing that first high I chased that feeling for the next ten years. I found it for a brief moment in '94 when I opened for the Last Poets at a concert in San Francisco and one of the founding members walked up to me during soundcheck, repeating the lyrics to one of my poems over and over again with a look of awe on his face, and told me how impressed he was by what he'd heard. The whole reason I was doing spoken word, the whole reason I ever thought to put poetry to music was because of what cats like The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron had done in the seventies. I was blown away. I had connected with a legend.

In 2000 I found it again when I sold my first short story to an anthology after not writing short stories for more than ten years. Then that same year I found it again when I was recognized at a convention by someone who had read one of my short stories online.

I found it the following year when I collaborated with Ed Lee to write something that I was sure transcended what most people usually envisioned when they thought of Extreme Horror. And again a year later when I repeated the success with Monica O'Rourke and our infamous novella Poisoning Eros.

This past year I found it when I saw The Book of A Thousand Sins published and read the first reviews. Again when Succulent Prey was released. And even again when I realized people were actually reading this damned blog. For a brief moment I was something larger than the poor kid from the streets of Philadelphia. I was something more than just the big black guy who can kick ass like no one you've ever seen or even the big black guy who can pull the finest women you've ever seen. I was greater than the Wrath James White who used to do naked performance art or even the shy kid from Philly who used to sit around reading Incredible Hulk comic books and reading Stephen King novels.

In another widely read blog written by an author that I respect and admire,he said that anyone who isn't writing for the money, who writes because he thinks he's creating art or changing the world, is a fool. Back when I was running wild on the streets of Philadelphia, chasing pussy, getting into fights, running from the cops, trying to think up the perfect get-rich-quick scheme, or just trying to keep from getting robbed, stabbed, conned, or shot, I would have probably agreed with him. Back then when I used to sit in the same sweltering little room, in the same house where three generations of my family had lived before me, wishing I had the money to afford designer clothes or name brand sneakers or had the money to go to the movies every weekend or eat at any of the restaurants I passed on my way to school, my only hope was that my ability to turn an interesting phrase might someday make me as wealthy as Stephen King or Dean Koontz or Clive Barker or any of the other authors I was likely reading at that time. But that was before the night I stood down at Penn's landing looking out at those millions of lights and realized that it was actually possible to reach all of those people. That it was possible that people I'd never met might actually be able to know and understand and empathize with me through my writing. That they might even pass my words on to other people who might come to know me as well. That generations from now, long after I am dead and everyone who had ever set eyes on me was dead as well, that people might still discover my writing and someone born long after I had left the earth might get to know and understand what I thought and felt and believed. That my art might allow me to connect with people across miles and across decades. And no, I am not blind to the fact that the more books I sell the more people I might potentially reach and the more successful I am as a writer while I am alive the more chance my work might live on after I am gone. Nor am I blind to the fact that monetary success would allow me more time to write and less time where I need to be bothered making a living doing some mindless job I have no passion for. But this is not the reason I write. I want the money but I don't write for the money. That connection with something beyond myself is why I write, that transcendence. I write because through my writing I become something more, something greater. I want success as much as any man on earth, but those fifty and sixty thousand dollar advances that everyone talks about but no one I know has ever seen are not enough to make me do what I do. I'm still just chasing that feeling.

1 comment:

Maura said...

Sometimes I think that the best that any artist can hope for is to have their works discovered and appreciated after they die. It's wonderful to be acknowledged and celebrated within your life, but having your works outlive you is probably the closest you can come to immortality.

It's great that we live in an age where it's so easy to share poetry etc. with people anywhere in the world.