I arrived early at the Gregory Alliar Museum for Mike Lala’s poetry reading and took a moment to wander quietly from painting to painting through the gallery as the audience filtered in. One painting in particular interested me, a simple rectangle frame with the image of a Mexican farmer bent over a field as he labored with a hoe. He wore jeans and green bowler, and his face was hidden. The plackard read Hombre Cultivando la Tierra, 1995 and that the painting was a promised gift to Polly and Mark Addison who, it seemed to me, were quite patient in waiting these 22 years for their art.
“I am on perpetual loan,” Hombre told me as we moved on through the gallery. “I go from museum to museum, staying a few weeks here before moving on to a new gallery.”
“You must be familiar with events like these?” I inquired.
“Yes. Art is my life, after all. I work very hard at it, day and night.”
I explained to Hombre that this evening we would be hearing a poetry reading from a New York poet named Mike Lala, as well as an opening reading from Rachel Hall, a professor of English who is also based in New York. Hombre was eager to join me and so we took our seats near the front row.
Rachel read from her book of collected and connected short stories titled Heirlooms, and though we were unable to catch the title of the specific story, it centered on a young woman living in France near the beginning of World War 2. Rachel read smoothly and clearly, no doubt a skill she learned from her years as a professor as Hombre commented, however, we soon found ourselves growing bored of the story.
“I’m not sure I understand what the point of this is,” Hombre whispered.
“I believe she’s trying to tell us about that feeling of uncertainty immediately before the war but through the lens of her first pregnancy and her family.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps this is what your English department would like you to say about this reading?” Hombre countered.
“To be honest, I’m not sure what the expectation is.”
“I think the expectation should be to honestly talk about how you feel.”
We listened patiently as Rachel’s story continued and we learned our character lost the child, that her neighbors read books about farming (and how unusual that was to them!), and that the bed sheets smelt stale which was probably some allusion to her marriage or sex in general being repugnant to her. We learned about all the material things in this character’s life: so many possessions, so many things to be tied down with: the pleats of a skirt, foods of all kind, and a fancy stroller, la poussette as it was always referred to in French, which was highly coveted.
She described barley as being “versatile” and I heard Hombre chuckle causing his green canvas hat to shake.
“I do not see the point to that story,” He said as Rachel stepped away and Mike Lala was being introduced. “It was very sad, but very non-specific. Nothing happened, there was no tension or drama, and though the writing was technically proficient, it all leads up to a lot of nothing.”
“I have very little,” Hombre continued. “I do not own the land and my labor is for the benefit of a wealthy landowner, much as it has been for thousands of years all over the world. And the work is very hard and I am hunched over at it all day. But I do not complain because what else will I do? I know how to till the earth, I know when to plant the seeds, and I know when to harvest. Who else will do this? And besides, I love it. Sometimes there is no harvest, sometimes the crops wither or are flooded and I worry I might starve. It is a hard life to dig all day, but there is truth and beauty in it, too.”
“And you didn’t see that in this story?”
“I saw a story that would get a passing grade from a university professor because it is crafted the way university professors require their stories to be crafted. I see this a lot in my travels. A lot of people show up to hear something they want to hear but they do not want to be honestly challenged. They do not want a real farmer who smells of sweat and earth and whose hands are raw from gripping a hoe in the sweaty sun, they do not want what is real, they want what is safe, what is nostalgic, they want what looks like art, but not real art. They want something to hang on the wall, something to advance their university career so they can graduate more people like them.”
Though I could not see Hombre’s face I could sense he did not have much hope for the evening’s main attraction, Mike Lala and so he sat with his head bowed, his face perpetually hidden.
Mike was a very good reader, and he had a smooth, yet breathless style to each of his poems. Often he would be out of breath and have to pause and gather in a fresh lung to continue. His poems were complicated, taking advantage of Google translate to create new poems from the original ancient Roman poet’s, Catullus with new, modern meanings in an attempt to compare but also contrast our two decadent and corrupted societies. Having seen his poems on the page he seemed interested in the form and physical structure of poetry, and I mentioned this to Hombre.
“I’m afraid this is not much better,” Hombre admitted after the final reading. “Our poet is too concerned with appearances and the material possessions of the world. In his final poem I was worried his breathless list of all those useless material things he saw on Elizabeth Street might actually suffocate him. Our poet has inherited Audre Lorde’s diamond from coal but now wears it like gaudy jewelry. What does it matter to want all these things, all these possessions? What is the point of all this experimentation of poetry if it only leads to so much naval-gazing and selfishness?”
As the audience dispersed I walked Hombre back to his frame. Hombre took his place bent over the hoe over the cracked earth of the Mexican prairie.
“Art is not for galleries,” Hombre said. “Art should be life, art should be struggle, art should be work and sweat and confrontation. Art does not need to be approved by a university chair and given awards by other university chairs in the hopes of creating more university chairs. Art is supposed to make us think and act! Art is the exercise of critical thinking for us to take into the world to change the world.”
“So you did not think what we heard here tonight was art?”
“I think our speakers believed it was art because that’s what they’ve been told is art. But the true way of art was lost tonight. If Seamus’ father could walk out of his potato field, or Blake could put down the sick roses he tends to, or if Gwendolyn could leave that empty house Sadie left her and see what has become of their efforts, I think they would despair. Art should work towards something, not just be a centerpiece for the wine drinking classes.”
“What should I write about this evening, Hombre?” I asked.
“Write the truth. Say you had a pleasant evening but that you found it lacking in anything real.”
“I don’t want to be rude, and I don’t want to be “that guy” in my English department who is always causing trouble by being overly critical of his colleagues hard work.”
“Than perhaps you might consider becoming a farmer?” He answered and then returned to his duties.
As I exited the gallery I wished Hombre good luck on his travels, an artist – a worker – forever on the road and never safe at home to just hang on a wall.