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My Peculiar Education August 17, 2011

Posted by Mark Folse in 504, books, cryptic envelopment, New Orleans, NOLA, Poetry, The Narrative, Toulouse Street.
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“Only in New Orleans can you play Red Garland on the jukebox of your corner bar, and have someone walk in 2 minutes later and say, ‘hey, is that Red Garland?’.”
— musician and WWOZ host Jeff “Snake” Greenburg

I love jazz but I am in no way a student of it. I am a reader of liner notes (remember those?) but I don’t commit them or discographies to memory, cannot list every group in which John Coltrane played or everyone who passed through Miles Davis’ bands.

Like most of my education the accretion of jazz around my life has been a matter of serendipitous accident, like waking up this morning and checking Facebook to find a post by local musician Jeff Greenburg quoted above, wondering who Red Garland is. The name is familiar. I am certain to have read it before but I do not recall his role as pianist to Miles Davis or his work with John Coltrane but again I am not an aficionado, a fan who can call up the entire Blue Note catalog like the batting stats of the 1950s New York Yankees.

When I was a a teenager there were no hot brass bands. Jazz was to me Pete Fountain and Al Hirt, the entirely square music of our parents. Little did I know that by falling into the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa, by the intersection of John McLaughlin and Miles Davis, I would find myself years later owning as much Jazz as I do anything else even if my own collection is as idiosyncratic (go ahead, say it: Odd) as my collection of poetry.

How marvelous to live in a city where you can hear fabulous jazz in a neighborhood dive, to be able to ask someone who that is and the next thing you know you have a new Miles Davis album, and you are reminded to return to work on your Miles poem for the series of jazz poems. People talk about New Orleans as a small town with a big footprint, of no more than two degrees of separation between where you went to school and the person you are talking to but sometimes I think there is more to it than that. We are perhaps the last city in America to still believe in magic: not the stage magic of Hollywood but instead the collected prostheses and crutches in St. Roch Cemetery, the wax puddles in front of famous tombs, the curse of the Girod Street Cemetary.

Funny that all of the examples that fall off my fingers reference death but when you make of death not the closing of a lid and a clod of earth but a joyous celebration of transformation, when after the widow falls out the last time there will be a parade and she will march in it like a queen, perhaps we open a door into elsewhere, admit a bit of its mystery into our everyday lives.

And we in New Orleans trust to luck. Fortuna features prominately in the famous Confederacy of Dunces but is not numbered in our pantheon with Joan D’Arc and Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Dambhala and Marie Laveau. Stil we are always inclined to trust our luck: yes, stay and have one more beer and tomorrow will work itself out, have another shrimp because your grandfather lives to be eighty something crushing his cigarettes out in the puddles of butter, not to bet the rent exactly but to understand that somehow the rent will get paid. Work to live and live to eat. We rely on Fortuna more than most people realize.

There are two approaches to life: the studious (how I trained myself to be an IT worker with most of a degree in English Literature and a history working in newspapering and PR) and the fortuitous (or how I fell into jazz and poetry, by hearing or reading something and letting it lead me into a beautiful Borgesian labyrinth at the heart of which is something magical).

The last time I studied poetry in a structured way was over thirty years ago, and I owe a great debt to Raeburn Miller and Seraphia Leyda for creating a love of it that never died, and after thirty years of continuing to read poetry the way most people consume mysteries, and occasionally writing my own, I find myself scheduled as a featured reader, compiling a limited edition chapbook of my own work for the occasion. My history with jazz is much the same, although I had no mentor the once again fortuitous intersection of the WTUL jazz show in the days before WWOZ, the rise of ‘OZ, finding WAMU in Washington in its glory days or KNDS when I arrived in Fargo programmed as a jazz station for years before it was given over to the students to program indie rock. I have never stopped listening, jotting down titles and artists even as I was driving.

As I stand at the cusp of my second Saturn return, the cycle of 27 to 29 years in which it takes that planet to make an orbit through the zodiac, I am at a crossroads. A Saturn return is the point in life at which major decisions and changes are made, a time for planning the next large phase of one’s life. Moloch is calling all his acolytes home to the central temple on the East Coast and I have told them I cannot (will not in truth) come. A decade in the corporate grind has worn down the edge that sort of work requires. I have changed careers or jobs every seven or so years all through my life, but in my early fifties this suddenly seems a more daunting challenge.

Studious or fortuitous? My Project Management Professional certification book lies hidden under a pile of literary books on the floor by the bed and I find myself seriously considering a writer’s retreat if I haven’t found a new job by October. Or calling up the University of New Orleans and to find out if they will let me finish my last credits toward a degree in English Literature after a 30 year interruption. I have a decent severance with an education allowance, and perhaps it is time to turn the fortuitous path into the studious one. I have to ask if the events of this year point in a new direction: learning a prestigious New York literary blogger reads Toulouse Street, an invitation to appear as a featured reader at the city’s most prestigious poetry forum and another to discuss my books on the radio show hosted by the city newspaper’s former book section editor. Lately even the rejection notes have become personalized and encouraging.

Perhaps if my avocation becomes the studious part of my life, then fortune will find me a job to keep body and soul together, to somehow manage to get two grown children through college. A dangerous gamble for a normally cautious person but for all the troubles of this life Fortuna has always kept an eye out for me. I have lucked out of so many bad situations I stupidly placed myself in that I have seriously considered the question of the guardian angels the sisters instructed us in at primary school, have gone so far as to prayerfully discharge them and bequeath their protection to my children. I am not a religious person or exceptionally superstitious (for an Orleanian), but too many things fortuitous and strange have happened in my life to completely discount some greater and mysterious agency at work.

If I have completely upended my life to dedicate every spare hour to close reading and to writing, If I have uncorked a talent I bottled up long ago in favor of a more conventional life I should recognize I will not easily get that genie back in the bottle a second time. I would in fact feel my life largely wasted in spite of other accomplishments: a couple of pretty nearly perfect children, some moments of triumph in the work-a-day world: that moment my mother describes, as I lead the newly elected U.S. Senator through the crowd from the back of the room to the microphone and my father “tried to crawl into the television” as she described it, or sitting in The Abbey with ink-wet copies of my newspaper and the major daily, celebrating our triumph in beating Goliath’s election coverage all to hell, moments that come back in memory in rich technicolor with music under, your vaguely cinematic triumphs.

Those moments were glorious but sic transit gloria and they were not as ultimately soul satisfying as seeing your own words in print and better still when others recognize those words as worthy.

“So we see that even when Fortuna spins us downward, the wheel sometimes halts for a moment and we find ourselves in a good, small cycle within a larger bad cycle.”
— John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces)

A Facebook post leads to a new record that takes me back to a writing project. Clearly it seems things have begun to align some almost imperceptible way, and I can’t tell if I am the frog and the pot is going to boil, whether that tingling sensation foretells jackpot or lightning. I know the road just ahead is rough and fraught with peril but I also know that I am too far down this road to turn back, the shadowy Disney forest of twisted finger limbs is clearing and I have to believe that somewhere over one of these inevitable hills the Emerald Jerusalem sits nestled like Hollywood beneath a monument in words.

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