Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Winning Means

I used to think poetry contests were totally bogus. Then I won one.

I took third place for one poem and honorable mention for another. Two poems in one contest? What about all the other worthy entries? I felt greedy. Then I felt guilty. Then I felt stupid for feeling greedy and guilty. Then I felt confused.

What does it mean to win an art contest? As a songwriter and musician I’d won a few awards through the years, and now this. It was unnerving. The trophy shelf in my music studio was getting crowded. I had to figure out what was happening. Why was the least competitive guy I knew winning prizes?

Schopenhauer talks about how life, as it is being lived, seems random and chaotic, shaped by one accident after another. It is only in retrospect, looking back, that one sees a pattern, an undeniable order choreographed not by the individual will but by a metaphysical force beyond anyone’s control. All the chance encounters and unsought influences sculpt the course of our lives like a river carves a canyon. I can’t help but wonder along with David Byrne in the Talking Heads classic, well, how did I get here?

Naturally, it began with my family. My brothers and I grew up under the loving guidance of Hilbert and Amy Bolland, Dutch immigrants who brought their European sensibilities to the California shore. Our home was a place of music, conversation and art. Their wide-eyed wonder and belief in the infinite creative power of the American dream extended to their three boys. My parents made it clear that the only limitations we had were the ones we placed on ourselves.

Competitive sports were not a part of the picture, not at home anyway. I can’t remember a football, basketball or baseball game ever being on TV in my house when I was growing up. Not once. Of course we boys became irreversibly Americanized, but for me, sports never quite stuck. The only “sports” I liked were surfing, long meandering bike rides and aimless hikes through the hills, three activities that do not require, upon completion, that there be a loser.

If you were a Bolland, you were a musician. We all played. Cultivating, voluntarily or not, the discipline to master difficult tasks was an everyday activity in my house. But on the other end of all that hard work was something unspeakably beautiful and infinitely valuable. Not a bad deal. I never forgot that.

And I remember the letter writing. On weekends, my dad would sit on the patio and type long letters to his parents and siblings back home in the Netherlands. To this day, the sound of a clacking keyboard makes me feel connected and alive. In loving hands language becomes a fire that turns to ash the constraints of space and time.

And then there were books. When I was very young it was the Hardy Boys. Later it was Ray Bradbury. Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Martian Chronicles convinced me to my core that language was the most potent force in the universe. How could these lines and squiggles on this dry dusty page evoke such heartbreaking majesty, such wretched misery, such endless longing, such transcendent bliss? And then I read The Lord of the Rings – three times. I never looked back. I read everything I could get my hands on.

When I was about twelve I bought my first two poetry books with lawn-mowing money – Charles Bukowski’s Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The earthy grit of Bukowski and the celestial power of Whitman made plain the infinite range of poetry. Who knew that the English language itself could become a musical instrument?

In high school it was Herman Hesse. Me and my bookish friends read everything Hesse wrote. Was it any wonder we looked upon jocks and cheerleaders with such pity? We were peering into the abyss and touching the flames of the mystery of existence. They were chasing a ball around and singing silly songs about it. The condescension and arrogance of youth knows know bounds. Perhaps it was just self-defense for the way they looked at us, or I should say, didn’t look at us. To them, we were invisible while the entire apparatus of the school orbited around the heralded glory of their athletic achievements. We barely noticed, sticking our noses back into our books.

I remember one morning in elementary school the teacher asked for volunteers to read their one page story to the class. Before I realized what had happened, my hand shot up in the air. I’ll never forget that feeling, that feeling of reading my story out loud in front of the class and the way they leaned into it in rapt attention. They laughed at the funny parts and drew hushed breaths at the suspenseful parts. All I remember about the story is that it had something to do with a cow who rode a motorcycle to the top of the Matterhorn in Disneyland. But I do remember as if it were this morning exactly how it felt to wield the conjuring power of language and what it was like to possess, if only for a moment, the ability to mesmerize people with mere words. Experiences like that shape you.

In high school and college I wrote some poetry, most of it awful. Then I got into songwriting. I loved playing cover songs of course. Neil Young, Dylan, Gram Parsons and all the rest. I had great teachers. But I couldn’t stop myself from trying my own hand. I still write songs – it is one of the singular joys of my life. I’ve written about two albums worth of decent material since the last album California. With five albums behind me, it would be nice to keep it going. But these days I’m too busy writing poetry.

Three years ago I enrolled in Steve Kowit’s creative writing class at Southwestern College. I liked it so much I did it again the following year. Maybe it was Professor Kowit’s light touch and deep mind, maybe it was the exercises and deadlines, maybe it was the rich and insightful peer feedback in the weekly workshops – maybe it was all of it. In the alchemy of this humble but electrifying process lead turned into gold. Under the loving lash of Steve’s insistent encouragement, I began to submit poetry to journals for publication. He was right. They were good enough. It worked.

I published three poems this last summer. In the flush of that success I entered a poetry contest. You know the rest.

So what does winning a poetry or a music contest mean? It doesn’t mean you’re the best. It doesn’t mean you’re better than anybody else. It doesn’t mean you’re special or different.

It does mean that you’ve worked hard, learned some things and honed your craft. It does mean that your work has a living, emotional core and is not simply clever or well-made. It does mean that your poems or your songs have caught the attention not just of well-meaning friends and family but of total strangers who have no stake in your success and who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of excellence in their medium and genre.

But it also means this: now the real work begins. Winning awards for your artistic creations is as much a responsibility as a privilege. Getting admitted to the club means that your work will forever be judged against a higher standard. I’m an “award winning poet and singer-songwriter” for gods sakes. Yikes. No more drivel. No more mediocre, derivative treacle. From now on, just the good stuff. Time to get to work. That’s what winning means.

Visit http://www.perigee-art.com/ to read the winning contest entries Yosemite and The Last Battle of the Civil War.