10 August 2005

Conservationist, Nature Poet...Rock Star?

One of these things is not like the other. Can you guess which?

A few years ago, at a conference of nature writers and conservation practitioners, Barry Lopez told his audience that he felt "marginalized" as a writer. What he meant was that as a "nature writer" the literary establishment had sidelined him. A number of us rolled our eyes at that one; we would have given our left nut to be as marginalized as Barry Lopez. (Didn't he win the National Book Award for Arctic Dreams? He's a best-selling author, with a larger audience than many novelists!) My friend Bill from Alaska, said to me, "Wow, if Barry Lopez feels marginalized as a nature writer, how must you feel as a nature poet?!"

Bill had a point. I mean, can I be any more marginalized? Now, new reports about the environment dropping among issues of concern, the "death of environmentalism" debate, Michael Lewis' essay in the current issue of Poetry, and my wife's obsession with the reality show "Rock Star: INXS" have conspired to make me think, "You must revise your life!" (To quote an unkempt poet of some renown.)

Why is it so uncool to be a poet or an environmentalist? What is it that marginalizes these two ways of knowing and that alienates the general public? Why aren't there any rock stars in the conservation or poetry worlds? Or as Michael Lewis asks in his essay, "'Is there some new law that says a poet can't have sex appeal?'"

"I want to wash when I meet a poet," said Basil Bunting in his poem "What the Chairman Told Tom." Michael Lewis instructs poets to stop being so negative, that "nobody likes a whiner." He could have been talking to many greenies. In fact, much of Lewis' six-point "plan of attack" for poets would be well heeded by environmentalists: "Think Positive"; Pay Attention to the "Paying Customer"; "Think About Your Core Message"; "Strive to Be Relevant"; "Overcome Your Fear"; and "Think Bigger!"

My point is I think we in the movement need to reinvent ourselves. Turns out this is especially true for me, a "nature poet"; just thinking about it now, makes me want to grab a white shirt and black jeans from the closet , slap on some Beatle boots and hit the nightclub. I don't want to be a nature poet or a crunchy-granola conservation geek. We need some rock stars.

One colleague of mine is a smart-looking Brit who clearly shops at the right tailors in London whenever he gets back home. He looks sharp. He does not conform to the male uniform of the organization we both work for and that of the movement at large: blue oxford cloth shirt, khakis and brown loafers. One day I told him, "Nigel, you're looking great. You look like a pop-star not like someone who works for a nature group." He held out his hands, weighing the two as if they were scales of justice: "'Pop star'; 'Nature Group,'" he said. "Hmmm, I'd rather..." I don't have to tell you how he answered.

I used to be a rock star. Well, okay, a small-time rock star. Under the name Dash Beatcomber, I sang lead and played bass in a band for about five or six years in the late seventies-early eighties. The band had various incarnations, among them Deadpants and Active Driveway; we even had our own label "Sorry Kitten Records" and our own magazine Rockstop!. We went through a punk phase, a post-punk phase, even a Europop phase and were, at the end of our lifespan, among the original grunge and alt-country outfits.

We were cool, we were hip, we had seasons in the sun – actually, out of the sun, working on that trademark pallor of the rock star. Our recordings got airplay on WFMU, WFUV, and other cool NYC alternative stations. Our biggest claim to fame was opening for a then on-the-brink-of-being famous new wave band. (We were one of several acts on the bill; I said we were small-time). Jan & Dean had planned to record our song "Surf Ohio," which I’d written in a Dunkin' Donuts in upstate New York, but then they 86'd their comeback album.

What happened to us? Like many garage bands, we burned out. I moved to Europe; we all moved on with our lives. Our last recording session – now lost – included a couple of songs. One that I wrote with our guitarist Joshu called "Blondes on Bikes," a sort of alt-country paean to summer romance and Dylan's "It Takes a lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry." I did a killer harmonica solo on that one. When I told this story to my wife after playing Dylan's version on the jukebox in a bar the other night, she said, "It's probably best the tape is lost." (Somewhere out there is a cache of recordings of Active Driveway that would prove my point about at least one thing: we were ahead of our time. Okay, two things: we were small-time and ahead of our time.)

Those were the glory days, as the Boss says, when I used to be cool. Now, according to some recent reports in the media, I find that I have one foot in each of two "loser" camps, poetry and conservation. Moreover, I've spent the better part of the last twenty years trying to bring those two worlds together in my work and life. Who advised that? Now there's no chance that I can make a comeback as a rocker in my forties – comeback from what? Can one come back from virtual obscurity?

This is where my wife comes in. She's been watching (okay, I'll admit, I have too) this new reality show where a group of singers compete to lead the band INXS. I began to wonder what it would be like to be one of the competitors. Would I still have my rock 'n' roll moves? Could I still make a crowd get up and scream not just get up and scram? These days, my only performances are either in front of a PowerPoint screen, behind a podium in a bookstore, or in my living room in front of my two year old twins.

At heart, I'm concerned about being more marginalized than Barry Lopez. I don't want to be Barry Lopez, I just don't want to feel like I have my feet in a pair of loser boots. How do we expect to compete with stuff like "Rock Star: INXS"? I mean, INXS were not that groundbreaking a band and they have millions of viewers tuning in to this stuff. The closest thing we have in the environmental world is Jeff Corwin on "Animal Planet." There's got to be more. And poetry? The most popular poet in America today is Billy Collins. Have you seen him? A decidedly un-sexy fellow.

I say all this not because I'm suffering from some mid-life crisis—okay, maybe a little one—but because I think it's all connected to the fact that the environment is slipping on the list of issues that reach people. (I'm not the first to notice the similarities between "The Death of Environmentalism" and "Can Poetry Matter?" Dana Gioia's 1991 essay that spoke of elitism and insularity in the poetry world.) Poetry, at least Spoken Word poetry, has certainly made a more public splash these past few years, but for the most part, people are not turning to poems for inspiration and truth anymore. They are turning to rock stars. And do they care about the environment? Apparently, not as much as they do about who the latest "Survivor" is.

How can we expect to connect with people on this level? How can we get them to understand the links between where they live, the lifestyle they choose, and the future of our existence? Will they care the way they care about all these Janes and Joes trying to make it big on the small screen? After all, you can't "Text-Message" your vote for the environment like you can for Suzie, Ty, or Marti. But why not? Send a text message to Rockstar:INXS vote for ECODASH05

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Anonymous said...

Bring back the literary glory days with some absinthe. You need to be mysterious and enticing. sobriety and clear, reasoned arguments are not.

The Green Skeptic said...

Thanks for the advice. I'll pull out the Pernod and Gaulouises. Why anonymous? The air of mystery...