Saturday, July 26, 2014

"Player Dog Rest in Peace" & The Power of the Arts

cover of "Player Dog Rest in Peace"
A friend of mine posted on Facebook that, as she was going through old folders, she found a copy of the poetry chapbook I published back in 1996, titled "Player Dog Rest in Peace". I shared the cover on Facebook and several friends remember and/or still have a copy of it!

Seeing the post from someone else reminded me how happy I am that I put out the effort to publish this. I didn't make much money (I covered the printing costs and had enough extra to buy a nice dinner during a night out with friends). And it didn't "lead anywhere" (i.e., I'm not a famous poet). However I've long since learned that, if we only do things that make money or lead somewhere, that we're missing some of life's most enriching opportunities and experiences. I learned a lot from creating and publishing "Player Dog Rest in Peace".

The power of this chapbook is what it conjures up in me. I smiled the instant I saw the picture posted by my friend, because a flood of memories associated with it and the poetry it contains - which was all written during my first few years living in Chicago - came to mind:

  • Reading "Intro to Urban" at the Green Mill with a jazz trio playing "Cantaloupe Island" behind me
  • Afternoons and evenings hanging out at La Piazza coffeehouse on Broadway
  • Being a featured poet in the Poets Alive! series at Cafe Voltaire
  • My experience of love at first sight, which ended very sadly within days and led me to write "Dominoes", a poem published by four publications within a few months
  • Having over a dozen poems published in various small press zines
  • Performing my gay rap song "Icebreaker" at Pong Jam (again with a band behind me)
  • Lifting interesting phrases from opaque personals in The Reader (the title for the poem "Apocalypse Surfer" being one) 
  • Seeing rapper Guru perform live with jazz legend Donald Byrd (and Vanessa Daou opening)
  • All the crazy little theatre venues: Annoyance Theatre, Torso Theatre, and the Neofuturarium
  • Discovering Sartre and Nikki Giovanni and loads of other writers while riding the el to wherever I might have been going at any particular time
  • Seeing a tour bus go by and then realizing in shock that someone was taking a picture of me(?)
  • All the fun I had drawing the cover, designing the book, and playing with fonts
  • Sitting in the window of my third floor walk-up, with my feet dangling into space and writing as the sun set, while listening to the latest acid jazz CD I'd picked up at Evil Clown Records 
  • Going out for Ethiopian food with friends and finding a man there playing a giant kora harp
  • The joy of completing large poems like "The City is Made of Music" and "I am Pete; I Be Writing"

This period of my life seemed to be one moment like this after another, and it lasted something like three years. It was one of the best times of my life, partly because I was writing, publishing, and performing so much but also because what I was writing was such a perfect prism of my experiences in the city as well as all the things going on in my life. I was writing very personal poetry and creating a kind of private language, yet it was all very accessible work that captured a place and time in words. At the tail end of it, I met Jim and - before I knew it - one chapter of life came to an end and another began.

As for the title of the chapbook? When I was a little kid and we drove into the city, I always remember seeing this overpass where someone had spray painted the phrase "player dog rest in peace". For me, this was the gateway to Chicago. While I always wondered who wrote the graffiti and why, I'm glad I never found out and it remains a question mark. Anyway, after I moved into the city (as I'd wanted to do for most of my life), that overpass graffiti immediately suggested itself as the ideal title for this chapbook I was making to compile all the poetry that encapsulated my experiences in Chicago.

Almost two decades have gone by. The overpass graffiti has been erased, La Piazza is closed, Evil Clown and Cafe Voltaire are both gone, and the neighborhood I lived in is a lot more like Lincoln Park than the diverse, quirky, rough around the edges community I remember. And I'm different too. I'm definitely not that brassy little gamin with the oversized clothes and backwards baseball cap (think The Little Rascals with a grunge/hip-hop make-over) who moved to the city to - as I wrote in the poem "Intro to Urban" - "walk rainbow streets/and take a hit on the blunt of life".

I'm writing about this, because it's an example of one of the most powerful things about art - our own or anyone else's. Art encodes itself into our lives and captures parts of our lives like gas giant planets with a hundred tiny moons in orbit. When we experience that painting or song or poem again, we get to go back and relive those memories and feelings again.

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