I detest institutions of any sort. At the gentle age of two, while attending church with my family, I openly vomited onto my father's polyester suit. I wasn't suffering from some virus or food poisoning, I was made ill by the church itself. As the preacher spoke of sacrifice and repentance, I openly disagreed in flamboyant food chunks freed from the confines of my stomach. The feeling stuck with me all my life. Whether at school, the library, a club, or a suburban home, I felt queasy with discomfort. Having quit school in 10th grade, I felt that I had finally disconnected from institutions all together. That is until I was hypnotized by the term-- "liberal arts college."
I was invited to attend a "liberal arts college" in upstate New York by my wheelchair bound roommate Jethro. Having trouble speaking and a loss of balance from an encephalitis illness had rendered him with a mangled right hand and an incurable anger; I was a bit lukewarm about the idea. But with the promise of free meals and the added bonus of a powerful brand of marijuana made available by a teacher friend of his, I was won over. That said a lot about my state of mind. Institutions still made me ill, but the promise of pot would turn the institution into a mental carnival enema. And after all, it was only a week's writing course.
Still in a daze from the term-- "liberal arts college," I thought there would be clothing optional school grounds and discussions on bestiality. But aside from the overflow of lesbians and a gay man offering morning yoga, I found the school as suffocating as any-- "conservative arts college." Jethro and I were given our rooms in a building that remained empty except for Mr. Morning Yoga just one room over. The rooms resembled hospital rooms except without the charm of call buttons. As Jethro popped his Paxil, I wandered the college grounds. The other students resided in what looked like a little Nazi village. Though smug, it had much more charm than our "liberal arts hospital." Apparently, if one is in a wheelchair, "style, comfort, and charm" are traded in for "vacant, bland, and accessible." The school was beautiful though. Vined walkways, attractive buildings, and enough trees, flowers, and birds to lose yourself in. Sadly, while attending our poetry class, trees, flowers, and birds would figure heavily into everyone's poems. I became more of an observer in class than a participant, thanks to my label as "Jethro's helper." But I didn't fight it. Instead, I just became constipated as a result of shitty poetry. Not everyone was talentless. A handful of students had a grasp of the language and a way with words that mesmerized the teacher as they read their poems. Some lines caused our teacher to grunt, gasp, and even shed tears. As a student read, she would be heard bursting forth with, "Oh!....Wow!....Did you hear that?" I, somehow, was left unmoved and confused. The world of poetry is a strange and cultish one. The line "Breath of carrots and potatoes whispering at bedtime" will probably fall flat in the ear of most of the world, but there in that room--it had the power to heal the dead.
Our teacher was an intelligent and ungraceful circus act. She was the kind of woman who wouldn't wear a bra and loved to stand on chairs. As an example of the power of passion in poetry, she would often shout things like, "Eat my pussy you fucking shithead!! I'm sick of being raped by Jesus and having to suck my father's dick!!" And then a student would read their poem right after... "Love is like a raggedy doll of stars woven into a blanket of eternal flowers." And then the teacher would burst into tears and exclaim, "Yes!! Oh....do you see the blanket? Do you see it?!" She also liked to openly give the finger to a stern portrait of a woman hanging on the wall whenever she felt threatened by it. And she paced the room like a pregnant gorilla. I enjoyed her zealousness and fallen-angel persona. She was a good teacher. Sadly, she was still a teacher. We were encouraged to read our poems aloud, and then they were openly praised and torn apart. Instead of disagreeing with the poem's style and content in a negative way, we were told to say, "I joyfully disagree!" I felt so much better with that statement. This way, instead of everyone not liking my angst, style, overuse of the word--"I", and choice of subject, I am comforted in knowing that within all the judgement and disgust, there is "Joy." It's a great idea. Perhaps someday, war could be seen in the same positive light. Sure, we'll still kill and maim but all that "joy" will more than make up for it. "Die Commie bastards!!...Damn that felt good!" I don't "hate" you, I "joyfully" hate you. You don't "disgust" me, you "joyfully" disgust me. She had liberated criticism and negativity with the unique placement of one word. Said with a smile and it could disturb a child for decades. It was the one thing I learned at that college. The power of deception through words.
The student readings were the most revealing. Students would stand behind a podium and read anything they'd written for about 5 minutes. Of course the 5 minutes would often stretch to 15 but none of those readers seemed to notice as the audience's brains bled. I loved how some people would take pictures as the students read. Talk about an exciting picture! Roll after roll of readers standing at a podium with their heads down. They'd look at the photo and recall fondly, "Remember when I read my poem about the death of my father? Man, I read the shit out of that poem! My lips were flying, forming words. I even looked up once in a while. I wish I had some photos of my head tilted slightly up, man that would be amazing! Remember when I said, 'Daddy's in heaven now with the Chuds?' I tilted my head to the side, and I almost shed a tear. That would have made a great photo! Look at the deep brown of that podium. Damn those were good times!" Men and women are definitely different, and the proof was melting from everyone's choice of words. I grew up with the wrong impression. I thought that all artists had a distinctive voice that made them unique. Little did I realise that even artists are as drab and unoriginal as factory workers. It seemed that I hadn't come to the college to learn what it was I liked, but instead, to reaffirm what I hated. I can't stand poems about birds, old age, flowers, and any vine that gently kisses the back of someone's neck. Especially if it feels like "dew on a star." And what kind of person would write "Starry night?" Well, most females, I found. Female poetry is overflowing with words and phrases such as: "Nesting like birds," "Soft caress," "Kisses like spring," "Grandma's hands," "Star-filled sky," "Faith in flowers," "Is it safe?" and, "The tangled, warm sweater of my longing." Women seem to need comfort as they gently hump the dewy grass. And why does the poetry of young, frail, feminist women always start with, "The gentle fallen sparrow?!" What does that even mean? Is it a safe, quiet, non-threatening way of speaking about death? One frail woman ended her poem about her ex-boyfriend with the gentle threat that she would let another man get her pregnant and not him. Hmmm, this must be the product of Women's Studies.
Men, on the other hand, are more interested in conquering. Their poetry includes the phrases: "The greatest man who ever lived," "90 RPMs," "God damned flesh tears," "We are dreamers," "Animals are artists," and, "The timpani and cello fight it out!" They write poems about sculptors and dismembered furniture. They recall "mommy" and title their poem "Fleas." They pay homage to pioneers and fondly recall old bandanas. My favorite poem came from a German man who read his poem in German. I don't understand German but it was the first poem that made any sense to me. Perhaps the problem is words. While music seems to compliment nature, words seem to cheapen it. I suggest we all create new words. Throw out the dictionary and start fresh. From now on, "Starry Night" will be "Stroot ectangle." "Fallen sparrow" will now be "Playdo naptime." Well, "Playdo naptime" aren't new words but if any soft, "Lilith Fair", feminist ever starts her poem with "The gentle playdo naptime..," she has my full attention. I can hear it now: "The gentle playdo naptime screams at the stroot ectangle as aphids eat the playdo ectangle of stroot naptimes." Already my mind is as excited as a bamboo erection.
Jethro's poet teacher friend came to my rescue. Inviting us one evening to the bowels of the Nazi village, he produced a joint the size of a child's erect penis. We all sucked on it through idle chit chat. The feeling came on slowly. What tipped me off was the bizarre change in dialogue. The livid banter of, "So, how are things? Do you like your teacher? I knew you would," began to slowly distort to, "I used to do cocaine. I once traded a guy for some. I gave him free classes for a ton of cocaine. Hey Jethro, you're sure the giver, aren't you? How about paying the college some money for all these free classes we keep giving you. Hello? Hello? Are you freaking out? Let's get out of here....will you be ok?" And then Jethro and I were left alone. Jethro, unable to drive his electric wheelchair, was left stranded in paranoia and confusion. I did my best to try and seem normal. The Nazi village began to bubble slightly, and my legs decided not to work. I made it to a chair, and without noticing its slight rain puddle, I sat in it. For quite some time, I was convinced that I had wet myself. After awhile, we managed to make our way to our rooms, laughing hysterically as Jethro plowed his wheelchair into bushes and down hills at top speed while I rode on the back of his chair making sounds similar to diseased infants. Other students noticed and whispered disapproval but they quickly morphed into barn-yard animals. The terror of marijuana isn't its drug affect but rather that it wears off too soon. We saved a joint for the following night. This particular form of marijuana was showing me important information that usually went unnoticed. For instance, when Jethro's head would cast a shadow, that shadow was the scariest thing I had ever seen. Distorted and ugly, it seemed capable of raping Superman. When Jethro tilted his head back, the shadow grew fangs and ordered me to bring it the genitals of an elf or sprite. I've seen Hell and it's Jethro's skull shadow.
By the next evening, Jethro continued to show me Hell by nearly overdosing on Frappacinos which caused him to flail his arms wildly and scream in public, "Give me the joint!!" He lashed out at me with his claws and rammed his wheelchair into my foot to prevent me from leaving. Physically battling a man in a wheelchair isn't exactly my idea of a high point, so I ran out of the building, forgetting my key, and off into the woods. Jethro refused to let me in my room. His screams were heard for miles. Jethro provided great insight into the theory that "Man evolved from monkeys." By morning, he had evolved back into man, and I was able to continue being "Jethro's helper," although at this point, I didn't think I was helping him much.
Teachers providing pot, screaming vulgarities in class, the resounding echo of "Give me the joint!!" and the odd patheticness of an ongoing graffiti in one of the restrooms, seemed to be making this college more liberal by the minute. In THIS school, even graffiti is a political debate. It started with "Israeli racists must reverse ethnic cleansing of Palestinian land." I didn't quite understand, having quit school in the 10th grade, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for racists to do the right thing. Someone decided to respond with "Worry about your own country, like what we're going to do about snotty, half baked, college students who vandalize and deface bathroom walls." It was a statement that had to be made, but since this person also defaced the wall, I didn't think the point was very clear. This conversation was going nowhere. But then the next statement put it all into perspective. "The world is but one country and mankind its citizens." Ah, now that's what we needed to hear. Obviously this person had a rose up their ass and just wanted to heal. I wondered about the world being "one country." What one country would that be? I hoped it was Holland where the cafes were overflowing with the legal use of marijuana. There would be an end to "snotty, half baked college students" for they would all be "whole baked." And there would be no need to free Palestinian land because we'd all be too busy laughing, eating, and screaming in terror at shadow heads. I decided to join the debate, and I defaced the wall with "Has anyone ever heard the song 'Israel' by Siouxsie and the Banshees?" It was all I knew about Israel but at least I felt a part of something.
Schools are overflowing with self importance. They encourage criticism and doubt, and even when the message is tolerance and love, I see people competing and feeling insecure. Poems are never considered "good enough." If they were, then the teachers would be out of a job. Their whole purpose would be superfluous. Teachers would be revealed as the glorified critics that they are. If an artist doubts their own work, schools will gladly accept their money to be told, "Yes, you were right to doubt yourself." But then that's part of what makes America great. Those of us who know better are allowed, even encouraged, to live off of those who are insecure and doubtful. It supports the idea that school is necessary. And even when published writers gather students to tell them how to get published and say, "It all depends on who you know" in a variety of colourful ways, students will wander away confused and hopeful. I envy those who glory in being talentless because when all is said and done, nothing we do will ever please everybody.
I left that college feeling fresh and fuzzy. I had no doubt about what I was missing from institutions in general. I felt that the best lessons in life were learned as a student of the world, in reckless travel and observation. Nature didn't judge my every move like a teacher did. I learned that pot was a nice, temporary escape from the banality of my own mind, as long as it wasn't mixed with caffeine, muscle relaxers, Prozac, anger, and Paxil. I learned that Palestinian land was irrelevant because we're all the smartest monkeys swinging from limb to limb while one by one, we transform into beings that know better. Who know that freedom and confidence in art and life can't be learned or evaluated, it just is. And in moments of clarity, the lucky ones fall off their limb and discover true art. The art which is all around them and contains absolutely no judgement.
After recent travels through London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, and Prague, JARED BRENT has settled in Santa Ana, CA, where he lives and writes.
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