Going through the two dozen or so banker’s boxes in the back of my storage closet has only served to remind me how much University work I’ve done which I have then consequently forgotten. Four boxes full of essays, essays on movies, books, mysteries, art, literature, humanities, and writers, I’ve forgotten how much I photocopied in the library before the age of the internet, boxes full of articles and chapters taken from books and even sometimes whole books copied altogether. Then there are the screenplays, many provided by the film conservatory itself. I have original copies of Chinatown, Fatal Attraction, The Hitcher, Terminator, The Apartment, The Exorcist, to name just a few. We really did live on that campus 24-7, taking classes in the morning, then taking advantage of the library before afternoon classes, then watching screenings going into the night, and then studying and writing past midnight. How we made lasting friendships at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts I will never know. We barely had any time for socializing. And we also had production, making student films constantly all four years. I think we socialized on set and that was about the only time.
Among my papers I found reminders of my life 20 years ago. Love letters, Dear John letters, letters from home, bills paid and unpaid, grades, notes from professors, I have your autograph Laura Hart McKinny, you of OJ Simpson Trial infamy and awesome screenwriting teacher, on a note letting me know of a pending office meeting. I found a 1997 phone book of Winston-Salem, why I thought that was important to lug across the wasteland of America to Los Angeles I have no idea. I found a catalog for “Adam and Eve” which was about my only access to masturbatory titillation at that time. I found two SVHS tapes labeled “student films 1994” probably containing my sophomore final project and that of some of my classmates. I found a post-it note which simply read, “Fuck you Romulus.” I found a torn piece of paper which read, “Michael Cacoyannis, See Stella today don‘t forget!” I imagine that was a reference to attend a screening or to check out the LaserDisc from the film archives to watch for a class the next day or later in the week. I underlined Stella in the reminder three times so the admonition must have been important.
All that knowledge taken in. All that knowledge consequently forgotten. And by the time I got to Los Angeles none of that knowledge mattered. None of it mattered, not the fact that I was a Dean’s Scholar and a recipient of a scholarship all four years or that I absorbed all the classic films like a fish first experiencing water. None of it mattered. The only thing that mattered was how well I got along with others in a workplace and how fast I could turn my work around without mistakes in a newsroom and if I was willing to work through my lunch or work overtime without complaint. Being clever and educated took a back seat to being able to connect with others on a very basic level. I had to be able to talk sports with the guys and gossip about the love life of celebrities with the ladies. That was the extent of what got you noticed in a workplace. This life of a love for films and writing poetry and actually being educated extensively in what became an avocation secondary to a vocation was better kept secret, lest you be branded “strange” and a “weirdo” and “something is off, just not quite right” and the worst label- “pretentious.”
I spent all that time preparing for my move to Los Angeles because I felt that I needed to be at the top of my game to compete in this city and when I get here I find out that I am working with people who could care less where you went to school, what you have learned or what you have studied, what you can actually bring to the table except, of course, what is expedient at hand.
In the LA poetry scene, the question is how long have you been active locally? Or how long have you hosted a particular venue? A poet could be the shittiest writer alive but if they have been active in the scene for 25 years and hosted some open mic at some coffeehouse for the last 10 of those years then they are venerated as the greatest living LA poet alive ever. And you have to play the game, you have to get in the queue and coo and caw over these venerated poets for a bit before you are even vaguely acknowledged by the cool kids. If you come in roaring and lay down the gauntlet and demand respect according to your writing ability, this will never work.
Case in point- I went to see the feature of another Puerto Rican poet once. She seemed very nice, went to an Ivy League school, got up and read poem after poem about race and political identity. I was happy. Then I introduced myself and spoke to her in Spanish, told her I was also from Puerto Rico and during the open mic I read a poem about my childhood “3 Facts for Mathilda.” Result? She was unhappy from the moment I introduced myself as another Puerto Rican poet and she has never talked to me again. Ever. And I’ve seen her several times at several poetry events. I smile and wave at her. She looks away.
Another case in point- I was at the Cobalt when this other poet gets up on stage and talks at length about attending the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She talks about how hard the school was being a conservatory and all and how she consequently made her way through auditions to Los Angeles where she is now trying to make it as an actress. After her feature, I walk up to her and I tell her I too am a graduate from UNCSA (except at the time I graduated the school was only NCSA.) She had a hard time suppressing her incredulity. After asking me a few question to establish my bona fides, she changed the topic and never spoke to me about UNCSA ever again. This poet was friendlier than the Puerto Rican poet, at least this one accepted my friend’s request on Facebook, but whenever I tried bringing up her experiences at UNCSA it was like I was bringing up rotting dead babies in a ditch or something; she always made a distasteful face and refused to talk about school, even though we attended the same school ten years apart.
LA has a habit of forming their own poetry groups where they then give out their own poetry awards. This is really hilarious to me. Some poet makes up some group like “The Poets Who Say Snee” and then they have an open mic at some coffeehouse for a few years and then they put out an anthology of “The Snee Poets” and then if they build this up after a while they start giving out “The Snee Poetry Awards.” If you happen to point out that some of the Snee Poets are not very good, then you get shot down with a “What have you ever done for the community? Have you ever run your own Snee Poetry group for six years hmmm? No? Then shut the fuck up nobody cares about your opinion.”
Ok. I’m tired. I don’t know how to end this rant. I don’t know how to bring about a denouement. In my papers I found a photograph of a tomb whose headstone read, “Hitchcock.” This was not Alfred Hitchcock’s tomb, no, for he died in Beverly Hills and was cremated with his ashes scattered over the Pacific. This was some poor sap buried in Old Salem, in the Moravian cemetery, “God’s Acre,” about a mile from the film school. I took a picture. I lost the picture. I found the picture 20 years later in a cobwebby banker‘s box. I then pinned the picture to a cork board in my kitchen.