Sunday, October 20, 2013


I like money. I always have. This is a strange thing for a poet to say, since poets don’t make money. Nor would I ever want to make money through the writing of poetry. The very idea of writing poetry for money gives me the creeps.
It happened once. Many years ago, a well-meaning relative asked me to write a birthday poem for his newly wed wife. Newly wed makes him sound young, but he was not a young man. He’d already retired from a long career as a mechanical engineer in the Bay Area. This was not his first marriage. Children from his first marriage had long since reached adulthood and had families of their own. He was an older man with a youthful disposition and a Porsche.
He offered to pay me fifty dollars for the poem. This isn’t a value he’d based on seeing my previous work as a poet, or decided that being a poet was a practice similar to, say, psychiatry or law and figured that my labor on the poem would roughly take an hour and so decided to pay a fee that would have the equivalence to that of a psychiatrist or lawyer. His offer was one of kindness. I was recently divorced, enrolled at San José State where I was about a year away from acquiring a bachelor degree in English (ironic that they call such a degree a bachelor degree) and was living very modestly, to say the least. The fact is, I was dirt poor. I was living in a small dilapidated house on Balbach Street in downtown San José, not far from an auto body shop and a porn theater.
I accepted his offer, though with great reluctance. I accepted it because one, I really did need the money, and two, I knew it was offered out of kindness. I did not know his newly wed bride very well, an Englishwoman in her forties much younger than he was, but I liked her. The knowledge of poets writing for royal patronage during the Renaissance also gave his offer a certain romantic appeal, albeit a very faint one, since he was neither a duke nor a lord but a retired man with a comfortable pension. He had a nice three-bedroom house in the Cupertino hills, but no Hall of Mirrors or coffers overflowing with gold florins.
As soon as I set out to write the poem, I felt intensely uncomfortable. A bad case of writer’s block set in. I wasn’t writing as I usually wrote, which was sheer word play, taking a sequence of words to the very extreme limits of meaning and beyond, creating the strangest, most bizarre imagery imaginable. Generating relations between things that had never been even remotely associated. Why? Because it gave me a sharp intellectual buzz. It got me high. It felt like speed, like Dexedrine or Benzedrine, two of my favorite drugs. But writing a poem FOR someone was a total drag. This I was unused to. What I enjoyed in poetry were moments of unabashed self-indulgence. Those dilations of self-hood that so enlarge our individual consciousness that our sense of identity and all of the burdens and complexities implicated in piloting and maintaining an identity, a personality, an often anguished temperament, becomes a vapor, a diaphanous nothingness. We lose ourselves in language in the same way a stream flows from the rocks and underbrush of the coastland and loses itself in the surf of the ocean. Language is oceanic. It doesn’t matter which language. All languages are oceanic because they’re limitless, bottomless, and full of salt and tears.
Accepting money for the production of an occasional poem to commemorate an event gave it the finite conditions of employment. I needed to create fifty dollars worth of linguistic merchandise. Which I did. I honored the request of my patron and managed to put together a body of language celebrating the particulars of a woman's birthday, though I can’t remember a single word of it. That was forty years ago. All I remember was getting drunk and writing it on the floor. The wine I drank to inspire the proper encomiums and corresponding tone and imagery cost me ten bucks, reducing my profit to forty dollars. Wine was the fuel necessary to the engine of my cerebral tractor as it moved in the field of my endeavor digging furrows I could plant with words and cultivate into fronds of rustling pentameter. What words grew out of that Dionysian strategy I can’t remember. At all. I don’t remember how many lines it had, what images I used, what rhymes or delicate tropes, what parabolas and parallels, what allusions and anchored abstractions. The whole thing is a blank. I hope the ultimate product was good. I do remember handing the poem over to the man, who wasn’t into poetry at all, he enjoyed mathematics and geometry. Poetry was a perplexing phenomenon. His expertise was in energy conversion and computational fluid dynamics, not assonance and alliteration, though those things do bear some relation. He was a nice guy, that’s all I remember. That, and the fifty bucks, and the immense discomfort in writing poetry for money.
So why would I say I like money? I do like money. But I also like keeping money separate from writing poetry.
There is an exception. Getting a hefty financial award for my poetry is wonderful. That I like very much. But grants and awards are a very different dynamic. The poetry is already a done deal. It’s not a matter of directing the poetry toward a goal, it’s a matter of collecting money from a person or institution who deems your work of enough value to confer money upon it. It’s not just a matter of money, it’s a matter of validation. The validation alone is worth more than the money, but the money is nice. The money is terrific. The difference in getting money for your writing (past tense) and writing for money (future tense) is immense. Nothing can poison a creative session more than directing one’s writing toward a goal. Publication, for instance. The purest kind of writing would be a situation where you wrote for the sheer enjoyment of writing and then deleted your writing as soon as you finish. Or, if you want to put some drama into it, write it on paper then set flame to it. Watch it go up in smoke. If you can create a situation in which to write for no other reason than the sheer enjoyment of writing, man, you’ve got it made.
But that’s a whole other subject. Let’s get back to money.

My attraction to money has nothing to do with having a lot of money. I’ve never had a lot of money. Not in the United States sense of having a lot of money. Having a lot of money is a very comparative and relative situation. Someone making jeans for ten to twelve hours in a hot squalid room crawling with cockroaches and lecherous supervisors for six dollars a day might think that having fifty bucks in the bank is a lot of money. I have never been that destitute, or exploited. But I do know what it’s like to be poor and having to make a tough choice between food and books. Thank god I’ve never been addicted to drugs but I have been addicted to books. I am an unrepentant bookworm, for which I have sometimes gone without a meal.
It has always been a struggle to make money. I have often hated what I had to do to get money. Wash dishes, scrub toilets, weed gardens, mow lawns, pick apples, drive a truck, deliver medical supplies, wash and fold mountains of hospital laundry, wax floors, wash cars, paint buildings, shovel dirt, eat shit, run mail day after day through a Pitney Bowes postage meter. Take orders, swallow my pride, assume the anonymous diminutiveness of a dung beetle while performing the menial chores of an ant and daydreaming about the books I wanted to buy. Go home with a brain numbed by soul-crushing routine. Go home seething with anger and frustration because I had to spend time taking orders and doing stupid shit rather than spend time writing. If this is what it has taken to make money, why would I like money?
Money fascinates and attracts me for the same reason that words do. Both are a form of language. Money is a form of representation. Money has value because people believe it has value. The words ‘bee,’ ‘candy,’ ‘teakettle’ and ‘stoneware’ all have definite meanings and produce definite images for people who speak English. In the sentence “my wife works in a bakery” all English speakers know what is meant by ‘my,’ ‘wife,’ ‘works,’ ‘in,’ ‘a,’ and ‘bakery.’ The weirdest word in that sentence is probably ‘a.’ Who can explain the reason for ‘a’? It doesn’t really need to be there for the sentence to make sense, though if I say “my wife works in bakery” it lacks a certain musicality, a rightness of sound. I need the ‘a,’ like I need a penny to make a sum of a dollar and six cents to buy a can of soda, or Perrier.
Money and language are both vast hallucinations. Who doesn’t like hallucinations? Hallucinations are pleasurable because they’re like dreams. They’re images with no power to hurt us. If we hallucinate a tiger, we can appreciate the tigerness of the tiger without the tiger threatening in any way to harm or claw or eat us. Hallucinating a giant man-eating vagina might not be so much fun, or a tarantula or gargantuan penis behind the wheel of a Ferrari. But I guarantee they’d be pretty interesting.
Money, lately, has really gotten phantasmal because when Bill Clinton signed away the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 he created a situation in which commercial bank affiliates were permitted to gamble with their depositors’ money. The Glass-Steagall Act separated commercial banking from investment banking. Once you get into investment banking, and do it on computers that flash algorithms in a split-second, you’ve got a situation in which money begins to lose meaning. Wealth, hosted on computer-based electronic trading systems, deal in debt or equity-backed securities. These phantasms of wealth assume the form of pension funds, hedge funds, or sovereign wealth funds, the key word, being, of course, fund. Fund as in fun with a d. D for dying. D for death. D for dinosaur. D for duodenum. Duress. Dune buggy. Dysentery.
Why does a dollar still mean dollar to the guy at the 7-11 or barbershop or law office? Why does a thousand dollars still mean a thousand dollars to the hospital administrator or electrician or casino cashier?
I have no idea. It amazes me that money still has meaning. I mean, considering the way it’s inflated, or in the case of the billions lost (presumably) to bureaucratic oversight, compacted into a football and tossed through the hot air of war-torn Iraq?
The dynamic that is money is based on the mystery of the zero. This is where the sign has no reality other than being a sign, a sign for nothingness, and that’s the beauty of it. This is where concrete reality ends and the heady world of the algorithm begins. Wealth, in its most abstract sense, assumes dizzying magnitudes with no corresponding link to physical realities. Like poetry, capitalism is unfettered by empirical limits. It is an abstraction of economic value and medium of exchange that eliminates the cumbersome yoke of corporeity and thrives on the performance of mathematical entities with no ontological status. Capitalism presumes an environment of infinite growth, and this is dangerous for a planet that is very much a finite entity.
Zero, which is a sign for nothing, for the concept of nothingness, but a crucial nothingness that allows for the multiplication of numbers into larger and larger sums, is the blood of the algorithm. It is what brings oxygen to the tissue of finance. It is to mercantile capitalism what the blood of young maidens is to the fangs of Count Dracula.
Zero is sexy. It is the very stuff of poetry. It is the very essence of the meta-sign, the first non-real thing to assume a conceptual existence in thought. No ideas but in things, said Williams. But what about zero? Is zero a thing? Can a no-thing be a thing? Can the no-thing-ness of zero be a thing-ness in the sense of being a sign? Can a representation of nothingness be a radical semiotic goldmine of chandeliers, magic potions, and Gilgamesh?
Yes. In the realm of the zero, assent and credence have no limit.
From that point of view, the point of view of zero, money is pretty interesting stuff. It can also do a lot of harm. Money, when it goes wild, destroys empires. Implodes. Collapses on itself.
When the paper in my wallet has less value than the pixels on a computer screen, it’s time to learn how to boil water and make soup out of dandelions.
When the coins in my pocket cease their meaningful clatter on the drugstore counter and become the dead metal they truly are, our routines will end and we will all have nothing but time on our hands.
Money is the reason I don’t have to sharpen a stick and go kill something. It makes more sense to like it than hate it. It is what people have to do to get money that I despise. It is what people make other people do with their money that I despise. But the heat and lights and running water, the handsomely upholstered chair upon which I do an abundant amount of sitting and the computer that I am presently writing this on are by way of, and due to, money. I could not pay for these things with beaver pelts. There are no beavers living nearby, so far as I know, and squirrel pelts probably wouldn’t be worth that much. The oldest form of currency are probably cowry shells. It is possible that if a local economy develops out of the inevitable collapse of capitalism, we may arrive at something similar to cowry shells once again. Buttons. Beads. Maybe pebbles, like the ones Beckett’s Molloy puts in his mouth and sucks, each one “smooth, from having been sucked so long, by me, and beaten from the storm. A little pebble in your mouth, round and smooth, appeases, soothes, makes you forget your hunger, forget your thirst.”



Tom Raworth said...

John: "a" and "the" are always interesting. I guess in your example the dropping of "a" makes "bakery" a field of operation (like "electronics") rather than a place. Regards to you all there. T

John Olson said...

Yes, or predicate perhaps. "I like to bakery the collywobbles with propaedeutic pemmican," or "yesterday I bakeried my back with a baklava and a bainmarie." Nice to hear from you, Tom. We're having a calm gray October laced with flu shots and skeletons.

Tom Raworth said...

John: I have a small image to send you but find I don't have your current email address, and I can't attach it here.
Flu shot done, skeleton still padded, storm outside.