The Dan Schneider Interview 39: Bruce Ario (first posted 2/17/13)
DS: This DSI
sojourn is with a poet, novelist, and playwright that I have known for two
decades, and his name is Bruce Ario. His
websites can be found here and here.
Bruce was a regular at my old Uptown
Poetry Group in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Some of his own poems can be
found here. I
recently read Bruce’s latest e-book, the novel Help
From Above, Push From Below, Fight For The Middle- Recovery, and
found it to be an interesting, if uneven, read, although, after a slow start, it
got better with each succeeding chapter. It was in hopes for getting more people
to read this book and its message that Bruce asked to be interviewed, and I was
happy to oblige. We will speak of this book, in detail, a bit on, as well as
Bruce’s other fiction, plays, and poems. But, first, Bruce, please please
distill who you are, what you do, what your aims in your career are, and your
general philosophy, if you will, on life, art, and the cosmos, and why someone
who knows nothing of you would find this interview interesting enough to read?
BA: I am an average person who was given a second chance to become a writer. In my first life, I took things at face value. In my second life, I look deeper. In my first life, I bounced around a lot. In my second life, I’m more at peace. I achieved this change through hard work in recovery from drugs and alcohol and mental illness. My story may be of interest to others because of this change. I think change is one of the most difficult of all human endeavors, yet is something which may yield the highest benefit. That said, I am in a battle between qualities in my first life and aspirations of my second life. Fight is the narrative of this battle.
DS: I will be
asking some tough and personal questions in this interview, but I do so because
you have written about some personal aspects of your life that you want readers
to understand, so that they can learn from your mistakes. Nonetheless, let’s
kick off the interview with a relative easy set of queries. I believe we first
met in either late 1992 or early 1993. It was either at a meeting of the old
Ophelia’s Pale Lilies poetry group, or at a poetry reading at a coffee shop in
the Uptown area, the name of which I forget. Do you recall where we first met,
and how? And, for how long were you writing- either poetry or prose, at that
point? How did you take up writing?
BA: We first met, as I recollect, at The Coffee Gallery’s open mic poetry readings. We didn’t talk to each other too much at first. I do remember you for your confidence and great allegiance to the written word, which didn’t take me too long to realize about you.
In 1981-1983 I was in law school with the goal of becoming a lawyer. Due to illness I was not able to go back for my third year. I became homeless with untreated mental illness. I ended up in a mental health group home where I was under the care of an Art Therapist. When it became clear I would not go back to law school, Joan Ungar, the therapist asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said, “Be a writer.” I began as a poet, moved into playwrighting, and finally into prose.
DS: Ah, yes, The
Coffee Gallery. I can see it in my mind’s eye, now. Back in those days- the
early 1990s, poetry was getting ‘cool’ again, after a 20 or so year run of
non-popularity. This heyday lasted until the late 90s- about 1998 or so, and for
the last 15 years has been in decline. Since the UPG ended, in 2003, when I left
the Twin Cities, how has the writing scene changed there? Are there weekly open
mics you go to? Any other poetry groups?
BA: I too look back and relish the cool action that was poetry back in the 90’s. To my knowledge, it has dwindled down to a trickle. About the only groups you hear from are the Slammers, not my style.
I do belong to a poetry group that meets over dinner every other Tuesday, but it can’t compare with the excitement and energy of the groups in the 90’s when I was discovering myself through writing.
DS: Speak to me
of the UPG, and some of your memories of it- the people, the poems, the
conversations, the good and bad. Are there any poems that stick out in your
memory? Are there any moments from the group- certain people who may have come
only once, or anything else, that sticks in your memory?
BA: I remember the challenge and quality of work that defined the UPG. Many of us had great ambitions for our work, and the spirits were high. It was definitely a building block for me and my writing. I remember the criticisms were tough. No subject and nobody were shielded from scrutiny,
Comments could be biting. I remember a lawyer named John who brought a poem about a New England bay. By the time we were through, I’m sure he wished he never had. Mostly I remember the works of yourself, Jessica- your wife, Don Moss, and Jason Sanford. You had an interesting series of biographical poems which have stayed with me.
DS: Yes, John
Leighton was his name. Do not recall the poem specifically. Back in the 1990s,
two writer’s organizations tried to control the local writing scene. One was The
Loft, and the other was SASE: The Write Place. I disliked
both groups because the writers were uniformly bad, and both groups were very PC
and insular- the very antithesis of what an artist should strive for. Yet, your
books have been about characters with mental problems and addictions needed to
recover from. One would think that one or the other group would want to champion
such novels. Did you try to see if either group could help you get published at
some of the local Minnesota presses? If so, why did they not help? Why did you
decide to just self publish via an e-book?
BA: I am a member of The Loft and I still go to some of their readings – some are O.K. At one point I took a string of classes which helped me somewhat with the craft. However, they said outright, “We do not help someone publish a book.”
After contacting maybe 20-25 publishers and agents and seeking State of Minnesota grants, finding no headway, I decided to self-publish an e-book based on the success of a friend from church.
DS: Wonderful to
know that writing orgs wanna take your money but give nothing back to writers of
quality. Let me start off with Help
From Above, Push From Below, Fight For The Middle- Recovery.
In essence, this book follows a lead character, Brad Schmitt, clearly modeled
after yourself. First off, why did you novelize your story, rather than write a
straight memoir or autobiography? What facts in the book did you have to change,
other than names? Were there any scenes or characters that lacked real life
counterparts? If so, why did you make up characters? For dramatic reasons? The
book seems to follow the last three decades or so of your life, yet some parts
get more play than others. Were these choices from the gut, or did you majorly
debate with yourself?
BA: My first book, Cityboy, was a memoir. I wanted to do something different yet still write about my life experiences. Facts and names were changed mostly to preserve my friends’ sense of privacy. Of course, most of the events and characters were composites of real happenings and people. Fight is about recovery and the journey from trouble to peace. The choice of which topics to give greater play was both a choice from the gut as well as a choice of craft. My intention was to accurately portray this journey and convey its components.
DS: Schmitt goes
through a number of traumas, from physical brain damage, to mental illness, to
sexual confusion, to criminal acts, to alcoholism and substance abuse, to
religious conversion, to missionary work, to loneliness, and sexual rejection,
among the more notable episodes in the book. First, was writing this cathartic,
or did you view it as the best way to make art, by using your own experiences
versus, say, writing a mystery novel? Do you value the art of the book above its
message? If so or no, why?
BA: Again, the importance of the book and why I wrote it is both because I enjoy telling stories, but also because of the message of hope and possibility. Yes, it was cathartic and a learning process, a little like journaling, but less claustrophobic.
Schmitt is your fictive doppelganger, let me address some of these questions to
you, since I know that most, if not all, of Schmitt’s experiences and
adventures are based on your real life counterparts. Speak to me of the brain
trauma that begins the book off. What happened in real life, and what happens in
the book? What repercussions did you suffer from this trauma? Have you
completely healed? Without this head trauma, do you think you might have avoided
mental illness, or do you think that would have played out regardless of
BA: I had a car accident in real-life and sustained a traumatic brain injury. In the book Schmitt is thrown head first into a tree by a friend when they are playing a game called “Stupid”. In real-life my friends and I did play “Stupid”, but I was not hurled into a tree.
I combined several groups of friends and activities to get the essence of the experience without following the exact chain of events. Fight is spiritually true if not factually true.
The trauma described in the book – the paranoia, the schizophrenia, the alienation- is all part of what happened. I was indeed a bartender, and many of the perceptions, if not all, that Schmitt had were my actual thoughts. The head injury was very painful, both physically and emotionally. Finally, I just snapped, and the next thing I knew I was being called schizophrenic, which I didn’t fight for many reasons, but most of all because of the sense of relief the diagnosis presented.
I don’t have the feeling of pressure in my head now like I did, but after years of being on meds (and experimenting by going off them), I have made the decision to stay on medication.
DS: Let us speak
of your mental illness. What psychiatric problems or disorders have you been
diagnosed with? How have you dealt with them? Have you been to therapy- what
sort? Have you taken medicine for these ills in the past? Do you still take
meds? You are in your late 50s now. How has mental illness affected your life
for the ill? Any positives that have come from it?
BA: My diagnosis is Schizo-Affective which has been the case from the beginning. At times the doctors, I’ve had seven, thought I might suffer depression, but that never stuck.
Just recently, along with the writing of Fight, I have been discussing the head injury I sustained, with my current psychiatrist. I didn’t have the wherewithal to bring it up before now. It scared me to discuss it.
I am on a moderate dose of anti-psychotic type medication (they cost me about $500 a month and that’s with insurance).
Mental illness, of course, uprooted my life. I always thought I’d be married with a family and traditional job. The good thing is that I’ve come to appreciate literature more than I would have without mental illness – I know how that sounds, but it’s true. My decision to become a writer came to me after I was diverted off my first career choice, which was to be a lawyer.
DS: Just as
physical head trauma may have led to mental ills, so it seems that your mental
ills led you to substance abuse- mainly alcoholism. Other than alcohol, what
other drugs did you abuse? Why? Did you steal to pay for your habit? What was
the low point of the abuse? How did you turn your life around?
BA: I tried many different street drugs (I never shot anything). My drug of choice was alcohol, usually beer. We “borrowed a lot of booze” from the bar I worked, as mentioned in Fight. I’m proud that I have assessed an amount and sent a check to that business after getting sober.
The lowest point in my life was being thrown in jail. Something, i.e. the law, told me I had to change.
DS: After your
incarceration in a jail, were you sent straight to a sanitarium? How did your
family react during these low points? Were they supportive, or did they write
you off as the family ‘black sheep’? How did their reactions affect you, pro
BA: I was given a choice by the judge – either serve out my time, or get treatment in the mental health system, (Dan, it wasn’t a sanitarium. It was a mental health group home.) I chose the mental health system despite great misgivings that they would ever be able to help me.
My family and friends stuck with me. They had seen me undergo a great battle to regain sanity, and they were sensitive and supportive of that struggle. Without their help, I probably would have been lost, as melodramatic as that sounds.
DS: In both
books, Fight and Cityboy,
which is a great novel we’ll speak of shortly, you deal with these problems in
both lead characters based on you, Fight’s Schmitt, and Cityboy’s
John Argent. After the mental ills and substance abuse, a third issue appears in
both characters, and that is a love of women’s nylons. When did this fetish
first begin? Did you get help for it? Do you still have this desire? Was it
merely touching the nylons, or wearing them? Do you consider yourself a
transvestite? Are you heterosexual or homosexual? How has this fetish, along
with the mental ills and substance abuse, affected your life, personal, and in
terms of sexual relationships?
BA: I’ve always found women’s legs and also nylons to be sexy. When I was young, as I described in Cityboy, I thought I was un-normal. When I got therapy for my mental illness, this desire became known. I started to talk about it and many of the guys, friends and associates, all had something about women that aroused them, e.g. hands, hair, breasts.
What I thought was so weird was normal heterosexual behavior. It probably never would have surfaced if I hadn’t needed to go into the mental health system. You lose all your secrets in the mental health system.
I’ve found that some women are comfortable with this desire, and some are not.
The reason I mention it in both my books is because I’ve found issues with sex plague many people but it is mostly unnecessary worrying.
DS: As far as I
know, you are still single. In both books, at the low points of your ills and
abuse, you write of engaging in sex with prostitutes. While technically a
criminal act, most people do not care about this as an issue. Did you, however,
feel guilt over these acts? Did any of your specific problems- mental ills,
substance abuse, fetishism, johnning, indirectly or directly lead you to
converting to religion? You are a Christian- what denomination? Why did you
choose that church over others?
BA: Again prostitution would probably never have surfaced if I hadn’t been in the mental health system. I had always kept my late night affairs a secret. Where I really ran into trouble was in law school because I was trying to be serious about the legal system, yet, here I was breaking the law. I like to think that it was God’s way of getting me to stop that behavior which I have not done for over 30 years. Prostitution is actually a pretty bad institution.
With the severity of my mental illness, I felt a need to turn to God. I’ve become a member of a United Methodist Church. I chose it because I found the minister to be open minded and engaging. In a sense he captured in my mind something that had gone out to the cosmos. I learned to feel my religion and become a lot more comfortable with it.
DS: You are not
a Born Again Christian in the way most think of one- a fiery Right Wing
anti-abortion, anti-gay advocate. You are very liberal politically, and not in a
phony PC way, but genuinely. Did your sufferings lead you to be more tolerant of
others’ opinions, loves, and flaws?
BA: Tolerance is one of the values I’ve learned in my recovery. I became aware of suffering in the world, and Christianity provides me with a solution – love others, and that goes as far as you want to take it. Christ took it to the grave and beyond.
DS: You also
have taken up missionary work. How often do you engage in this? Where have you
been to? How long have you been clean and sober? Have you ever relapsed? What is
the hardest part of staying clean?
BA: I currently have two ministries. One is as the Saturday Manager of my church’s thrift store. The other is van driving for seniors on Sundays. I’ve also been to Haiti four times and India once on mission work.
I haven’t had a drink in close to 30 years. I’ve pretty much determined that it would be smarter for me to drink poison than alcohol. It’s a drug that’s ruined many lives, and definitely nicked up mine pretty good.
To stay sober, you’ve got to do it one day, one hour, one minute, at a time. It can be difficult to keep up the vigilance. I did relapse once. I lost law school and became homeless.
DS: I coined a term, the Divine Inspiration Fallacy because so many artists seem to deny their own creativity, pawning it off on others, or worse….God, or some other force or demiurge. There is no Muse. For better or worse, it’s all me, or you, or any artist. Do you agree or not? And this is a separate issue from believing in a god, because even if there is a God, that does not deny your own separate creativity. I think that the Divine Inspiration Fallacy is also the underlying root of why so many artists- especially those of quality, feel a rivalry with other quality artists. Were they to realize or acknowledge their creative force as a part of their own nature then there would be no reason to be envious. As example, I look at a great artwork as a new way to Nirvana- so to speak, and seek to know how that path was blazed, how it can be recreated, or adumbrated. Yet, those who believe in the Divine Inspiration Fallacy, and view creativity as something apart and above them, see any success by others as somehow their rival’s plucking down something from the ether that could have been theirs, and now is one less great insight, work, or idea that they can never have. Do you think that the DIF is an answer to why so many artists are insecure, especially in comparison to other artists?
BA: I disagree that there is no Muse. I have felt it. However, I do agree with you that the creativity is within. The longer I write, the more I rely on my own resources, and less on divine inspiration.
I can’t speak so much as to whether DIF is responsible for making artists insecure. I rather think the fact that you’re putting out something for public consumption that is so inherently personal is enough to make anyone look insecure. I also think that once a writer becomes involved with his characters, a sense of possession arises, and some writers are selfish with this. I have seen, what you mention, a writer feeling his insights can be stolen. I guess that’s why Intellectual Property Law exists.
DS: I know what
you mean by a sense of possession, although it is more like that of a parent to
child than an owner of a thing. If you were forced to label yourself one thing
only, would it be writer, poet, artist, or some other term? Why? And if the term
you’d choose involves religion, why would you choose something that is
inherently social, rather than something about yourself alone?
BA: I would label myself with the catch-all term, writer. I write in many different modes, wearing many different caps. In the past I’ve tried to see myself as the voice of recovery, but I’ve since realized that is extremely grandiose. I really only know my own voice and my own experiences.
writing is your real career, you work a day job? Where, and how did you get it?
The book details some antagonisms between Schmitt and some co-workers. These
must have upset you at the time, since they are a recurring motif in the book.
How is your professional life today? How is your personal life? At your age, do
you still hope to meet and settle down with a woman? Have you given up on ever
being a father? If you did have a child, what things would you try to do to
prevent them from going down your path, if they manifested similar ills?
BA: I work for a social services agency named Tasks Unlimited as a supervisor in two government mailrooms. I got the job with Tasks shortly after graduating from the mental health group home I mentioned.
The fodder for the antagonisms felt by Schmitt were almost all in my mind, and never verbalized by my co-workers. I worked with these ideas and feelings with my coordinator at Tasks and have come to a position where I feel comfortable in a supervisory role. You just have to develop thick skin.
I have given up on ever having kids, which was difficult for me because I had the desire to be a father. However, I would never wish my path on my worst enemy let alone a child, so maybe it is O.K. to not have kids.
I haven’t given up the idea of settling down with a woman friend, maybe wife, which I was close to in the late 80’s. It’s been a long dry spell.
DS: Not too long
ago, your own father died. I recall you emailing me a newspaper article on him,
as he was somewhat of a local legend in the Twin Cities. Who was your father?
What were his claims to fame? What was your relationship with him? What things
would you change about that relationship if you could? We’ll get to other more
personal queries later.
BA: Frank Ario was a high school teacher who was known to get his students to think for themselves. He once told me, “I just tried to get my students to learn to take and defend a position.” That is something I learned (I was in his class), and something that has served me well as I deal with what at times has been labeled a thought disorder.
I don ‘t know how many times I’ve been told by former students that my dad was the best teacher they’ve ever had – anywhere. He touched a lot of lives.
One of my fond memories of him is when I had gone through a period of sleeplessness for three or four days. My dad picked me up at my apartment, drove me to his house, we walked around the lake, and by nightfall I was sleeping – no pills involved.
If I could ever take back some of my angry words towards him I uttered in the heat of psychosis, I would in a heartbeat. I wish I had appreciated him at an earlier age.
DS: Let me
briefly return to your first novel, Cityboy.
It covers many of the same low points in your life, but this novel actually
starts with its main character’s birth. I do recall that, from the first
version of that novel, which I read perhaps 15 years ago, you have changed some
scenes, and moments- some that seemed to lessen the drama of the moment, or dull
some of the wit. Both I, and my wife, have lamented some of these changes.
Nonetheless, I think it’s still a great novel. That stated, why did you write Fight?
Was something missing from Cityboy?
BA: Cityboy is a coming of age story. It is about the transition to adulthood, Fight is about recovery, the transition from illness to health. They are quite different stories even though the cover some of the same material. Cityboy I wrote to make sense out of my life to myself. Fight is about making sense to other people.
DS: You have
lived and worked in the Twin Cities all your life. Why have you never left?
Would you ever consider moving if it was for work with your church, or to be
with a woman?
BA: I honestly feel that the Twin Cities has it all. It’s a fabulous place for literary pursuit, the politics are good, and the people are nice. I don’t plan on ever leaving. I have deep roots here.
DS: There was
another novel I recall reading, although I forget the name of it. You have not
e-published that. Is it because you don’t think it’s up to the quality of
the other two? My only two recollections of it are a character named Dr. Pencil
E. Stencil and that the lead character called another character a ‘beautiful
light skinned Negress’ in a book set in the 2000s. This book was not
about a doppelganger character. Do you think you need to write of yourself to
get the requisite quality of writing?
BA: The book you mention, Beyond Manhattan, was my first attempt at developing characters that were completely fictional. I think it came off as trite when I was trying for humor.
I am writing a third book now, Everyone is my Hero, which is another attempt to get beyond my own limited world and into more universal ideas.
DS: You also
write plays? Where do you get critique on them? Have you had any produced? Which
is the one you would want to most get a wider audience for, and why?
BA: I was a member of Minneapolis’s renowned Playwright Center for ten years. I wrote five plays and then five re-writes. I received excellent criticism and was exposed to some great playwrights.
My best play was Offer & Acceptance, a play about legal culpability of the mentally ill. We did a reading at my church which was directed by Ruth Adams, Director of Hennepin Avenue Reader’s Theater. I felt a need to explain to the audience that when the mentally ill act out, sometimes they are unable to distinguish right from wrong or even that an activity is illegal. The play is my push for a more effective and reliable mental health system.
DS: I mentioned
how you came to my old Uptown Poetry Group. Other than me, you attended more of
the 200 meetings than anyone. What did that group mean to you, personally and
artistically? Have you been able to find other groups? How do they compare to
the UPG, in terms of feedback and criticism?
BA: Between the Playwright Center and UPG, these were the top two groups that formed me as a writer. UPG was an exciting and motivating group for me. It was known for its tough criticism, but when I brought something that was considered good, it was doubly rewarding.
I have been involved in several other writing groups but none can match the value I got out of UPG. It just felt like the definitive view of my work at the time. Other groups have tended to be wishy-washy.
DS: In this
essay I examine some of your poems, and describe how you came up with your
own free verse poetic form, the ario, named after yourself. I
believe I may have coined the term ario to describe the form, but
I am not certain. Regardless, the form is ten free verse lines, grouped onto
three three line stanzas, and one stanza that consists of a single free verse
line that, when at its best, usually sums off, or takes off from, the rest of
the poem, and often transforms the poem into something more than it was in just
the first nine lines. In this way, the ario is probably the closest thing to a
free verse equivalent of a lyric sonnet. Would you describe an ario in the
manner I have? How did you come upon the form?
BA: Dan, you coined the name “ario” for my poems because I kept bringing these ten line poems to the group. I felt a need to have a form for my poetry rather than totally free verse. You helped me develop it and recognize the possibilities of the form for which I am eternally grateful. Yes, I attempt to fly the poem with a zinger for the last line. In college I was known for my one-liners and my timing.
DS: One of the
things about you is that while you are creative, you work almost totally
intuitively. Oftentimes it seems as if you have no idea that you wrote a great
poem or book, and other times you might have written something terrible, and yet
not be able to describe the difference. My wife, Jessica, sometimes reminds me
of your changing critical scale when she recalls a time someone brought a poem
to the UPG and you gave first criticism of it, and described it as great.
Subsequent people gave much more negative feedback, and with each person’s
critique, your assessment went from great to good to pretty good to mediocre to
bad to it needs alot of work. Is this a lingering affect of your mental ills or
substance abuse? Is it more important to you to maintain the content of a poem,
rather than try to improve the quality? Have you ever gotten feedback that you
thought was spot on, and then realized you should have seen the error?
BA: My view of art is that it constantly changes. I can recognize what I feel is a great line in poetry, for example. By tomorrow, I might feel differently. It might mean something totally different to me. The UPG taught me that great art is when it involves many aspects and interpretations which speak to the complexity of life. Serve the audience with a diverse and multi-faceted piece. It’s the change factor again. I don’t know if I would have adopted this view of art if I had never experienced an illness.
I don’t feel that one criticism will ever convey to me what I intended when I wrote the piece. I am always surprised. Some of my writing may be better than others, but I admit that I do have trouble sorting it all out.
DS: Let me quote
an ario poem from your website,
and have you explain why you think it works, and how you came about writing it.
I think it’s an excellent poem.
I learned all right if you don’t take the stairs
You won’t go anywhere,
And escalators are no work at all.
Gravity’s pull is daunting,
Yet, yearning for the light of heaven is stronger.
Who digs holes without special needs?
Any pleading we hear is only for hope,
A sizing of the scope it takes
In order to spring as a sprinter
And forget constrictions that bind like skins.
BA: It’s a poem that describes an aspect of recovery. I think it works because the images I used in it were all from an assortment of epiphanies I had when I worked as a janitor – had a lot of time to think. My thinking has become much more directed than I would have ever imagined somewhat the product of my education and somewhat my need to recover from mental illness. I’ve learned what frees and nurtures me.
DS: How do poem
ideas come to you- image, words, line, a dream, what? Or do you just start
writing? How does prose’s origin in your mind differ from poetry’s, if at
BA: Poems usually arise from images and ideas I’ve had in my free time as well as in response to what other writers have written. I take an idea and create my own work. This is true with both my poetry and my prose. I am just beginning as a novelist and all the strategies and craft that requires. The piece comes to me in something like a dream, and then I shape and communicate it.
DS: In your
answer section, post the poem of yours you think is your best, and/or the one
that is your favorite. Explain why each is each of those things, and why.
BA: Your Eyes
I saw you as distant
But we touched so closely
That I became entranced
By your beauty.
Your hair was so white,
It shone like the moon.
I was in wonder
Of your splendor.
I was afraid to touch
Your eyes though,
Because I thought I would
Your eyes held the secret
Of your internal beauty.
You guided me along
The path to your heart.
Your eyes told it all.
will never forget them.
I think Your Eyes may be one of my best poems because of its intrigue and sense of mystery yet is very specific and close. It’s a poem that lets the reader into my most inward desires yet remains fairly anonymous. The poem captures some of my journey in recovery – seeing the surface and wishing to go deeper.
The rosebush was planted in the spring
quixotic flower protected by thorns.
In my narrowed garden I sing
replacing grief with a physical thing.
I am a dog without a tail, ox without horns;
the rosebush was planted in the spring.
I cared for it and watched its fling.
The flower is life and my awkwardness scorns;
in my narrowed garden I sing.
A delicate plant with zing.
My flower looks at me and hears my mourns.
The rosebush was planted in the spring,
a gentle emotion pretty thing.
My heart remembers a child and forlorns,
in my humble garden I sing.
The flower stands to take me under its wing
over my body and feet with corns.
The rosebush was planted in the spring;
in my narrowed garden I sing.
Looking Away is the poem I am most proud of. First off it was one of my first. It is a villanelle, the only one I’ve tried. But, I am mostly proud of it because it is a feeling poem that speaks to my success at looking away from my illness and towards something new. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done with the most risk involved.
DS: Name me some
of your favorite poets and poems and/or those you think the best- those you wish
BA: I like John Keats, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, Anne Sexton, as well as others, but my all-time favorite is Bob Dylan, if I’m allowed to include the music. I wish I had written Blowing in the Wind, and Mr. Tambourine Man, or any number of his songs. My favorite poetry collection is Leaves of Grass, by Whitman both for its breadth and its sounds.
DS: Since I
quoted a poem of yours and asked you to explicate it, let me ask you to do the
same with your prose. Pick out a 1-3 paragraph selection from Cityboy
and Fight, and talk about the reason you wrote the selection, why
it is important to you and the book, and also why you think it is good writing,
or conversely, why you think you might write it differently if you went back to
do the novel again.
“If I had been born in the country it would have been different, but I was in the city – a cityboy. John Argent Jr. punctured his way out of his mother's womb, opened his eyes, and began to cry. Mrs. Argent lay in exhaustion.
"He looks like a healthy baby. You told me this is your second boy, Mrs. Argent. The second one is always the sensitive one. Perhaps he'll be an artist or a writer." The obstetrician smiled, his white coat almost pale next to the purity of the baby. John Jr. was at the center of things but like the hole in a doughnut crying while the doctor and nurses went about their duties and his mother doted on him. His lungs proved his presence like a clarinet in a marching band. Strands of red hair and green eyes filled out the small face of the city's newest member. The hospital staff methodically checked him and his mother watched protectively.
City noises - honking horns, ringing phones, the train passing down the tracks - all seemed in place. City sights - the white walls of the hospital, the budding trees outside, and the blue, blue sky - were the same as yesterday. City smells - the scent of the medicines, the fresh cotton garments, the humid air - all would have been noticed without the presence of John Argent Jr., but Mrs. Argent hugged her baby close to her chest, then holding him up gazed triumphantly as nurses passing down the hall peeked in and smiled. John Jr. stopped crying and quizzically eyed the scene looking as if he was staking out his audience like an actor.”
The opening sentence of Cityboy is the best line I’ve ever written. It sets the tone of the whole book. Then John “puncturing his way out of the womb” is an accurate, if coarse, description of what childbirth is really like. The writing does not seek to sensationalize or glorify or mystify John. It is just an honest opening to a very honest book.
from Above, Push from Below, Fight for the Middle - Recovery
“Hi Jack. Hi Ted. Hi Steve. Thanks for bringing me the records. It’s
my only relief. You guys have got to get me out of this place. They’re calling
me crazy, and I’m seeing our Granny in my life right now.” The brothers were
casually dressed, and their calm demeanor was a big contrast to the others there
at the psych ward. My brain feels like an
egg on a frying pan.
“You do look a little tense, Brad,” said Jack.
“Yeah, the doctor is trying to help you,” said Ted.
“Where is this angel, Brad?” asked Steve.
My God. Nobody can see her. Can’t
you see her? “She’s in my heart. I can’t believe you can’t tell.”
Brad tried to not get too excited but it was hard. You shouldn’t have to prove God.
“I believe you know,” said Jack, “but you still have to take your meds.”
“Not until they see my angel,” said Brad.
“They maybe never will,” said Ted.
I can’t bear it. “She’s
here as plain as I am,” said Brad. They
just don’t know.
“I believe you,” said Steve.
“Can’t you guys break me out of here?” asked Brad with the desperation of a man on a sinking ship.
“You have to follow orders, Brad,” said Jack. “We can’t break you out.”
“Then get out! Leave me alone.”
“Brad you have to do what the doctor says,” said Jack.
Brad tried to run out of the room but Jack blocked his way. With that, Brad punched Jack in the face, and bowled past him. Jack kept his cool despite Brad’s irrational behavior. The brothers talked amongst themselves, then left.
I chose this excerpt because it speaks to the desperation Brad is feeling on the psych ward. The stakes are high, and Brad thinks his life is on the line. Normally, you would think of the hospital as safe ground, but Brad is out of his mind when he thinks of the label they’re going to hang on him – “mentally ill”.
DS: Let me delve
into some of your personal life. Where were you born and when? Any siblings?
BA: I was born on April 29, 1955 in a small Northern Minnesota town, Virginia. My family moved to Richfield, a suburb of Minneapolis, when I was two, then into Minneapolis when I was six, where I’ve been (except three years) for all of my life.
I have three brothers, two
sisters-in law, four nephews, and two nieces.
DS: We spoke of
your father- what of your mother? What was her profession?
BA: My mother was a homemaker for most of my growing up. You can imagine the effort she put forth to raise four boys. Eventually, she took some education in addition to her BA in English, and became a librarian’s aide for 20 years.
She now lives in an assisted care facility and is challenged with Alzheimer’s, but still enjoying life.
your parents encourage your pursuit of writing? Often you hear of parents
chiding such ‘high’ dreams as unrealistic? Did they want you to ‘be
reasonable,’ and get a job where you could ‘make money’? Or did art come
later in your life?
BA: I did get the,
“Are you sure you want to be a writer?”, especially from my mother. She told
me I would never make money in the field. I did choose a very practical degree
in college – Economics, and I did go to law school with the hopes of having a
good income, but always in the back of my mind the dream of writing. I held
writers in the highest of esteem. I just never thought I’d become one. Then
with the diagnosis of mental illness and a story to tell…
DS: What was
your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other children?
BA: I was in the popular crowd. We were cool. We smoked cigarettes, then drank, then smoked marijuana. When Cityboy came out a lot of these friends were surprised to learn that I had struggled as a kid. They always believed I had it so together. In some ways I did. I emphasized the negative in the book to give credence to my battle with mental illness. If I had never had a car accident, there would never have been Cityboy and these days I would have been trying to get my kids into adulthood, my story private.
What were some of the cultural touchstones in your life, the things, events, or
people who graced your existence with those ‘I
remember exactly where I was’
moments? Who were your heroes? I know Bob Dylan ranks high. Why? Any others?
My earliest childhood memory was President Kennedy’s assassination. I was in
third grade, and they dismissed class for the day. All the adults looked so sad.
I too had sport’s heroes like any boy, especially hockey players. I wanted to
play in the NHL. Sometime in high school my heroes became artists – rock stars
and writers. I would have done just about anything Bob Dylan told me to do. He
just had that kind of influence in my life.
And you may be surprised, but you and Jess are a couple of my heroes.
Over the years I’ve seen you two battle big publishing, yet not compromise
your artistic visions. I admire you both for that, probably more than you
Bruce. I know Jess appreciates the sentiment, as well. What sort of books did
you read, as a child? I read science books, by and large, as well as atlases.
The How, Why And Wonder Books, bios of scientists, skyscrapers,
airplanes, dinosaur books, books on astronomy.
BA: I read the
classics – Huckleberry Finn, Tolkien’s Trilogy, Death Be Not Proud,
A Separate Peace, George Bernard Shaw, and of course Shakespeare. I
wasn’t a literati until much later in life. I had a very sports minded and
practical family. My goal was to be a professional hockey player until I
didn’t make the high school team, and then to be a lawyer. I always admired
writers from afar.
DS: A friend of
mine has told me that I’m ‘too normal’ in comparison to what others think
of as an artist- i.e.- someone with tattoos, Leftist beliefs, body piercings,
New Age beliefs. Clearly, you are, by and large, ‘not normal.’ But that is
not a bad thing. In what ways do you see yourself as conventional? Are your
religious beliefs conventional? How do they differ, or not, from those of others
BA: I’ve been
called different, weird, crazy, among other labels. I think that it’s my sense
of humor that makes me a little bizarre. Take that away from me, which seemed to
be happening at first in the mental health system, and I’m much more subdued.
My religious beliefs are mainstream. Thinking I had a special mission in
Christianity was more a sign of my mental illness than me. I know accepting
something as conventional as the Triune God helped me recover. Yet, I am
generally comfortable with others who do not believe like I do.
What are your political views? Are you registered with any party, or an
I’ve always voted for the Democrats. One of the things that does rile me
sometimes is how the wealthy just keep getting more, oblivious to the working
man. Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with those who excel. I simply feel
that at some point you need
level the playing field with more taxes, more regulation, and more support and
opportunity for the underlings. I have always been a great champion of the
underdog, which at times has cost me heavily.
DS: Speaking of which, let me toss out that old question: if you could sit down and break bread for an evening with folks from the past- scientists or not, which folk would you most like to engage with, and why?
BA: You’re going to laugh, but I can hardly wait to meet Jesus. If he came back, I’d love to be in his audience or “break bread with him”. I like to think I’d accept what he said and not reject his message, which so many people do (even the ones calling themselves Christians). And, if I ever get the chance I’d like to shake Bob Dylan’s hand. I wouldn’t even talk to him, just shake his hand. Among others would be Galileo, Shakespeare, Socrates, Lao Tzu, and Joan of Arc.
DS: Do you
believe in an afterlife (or afterdeath)? Why?
BA: I have to
believe, with the world as it is, there’s more. I see the beauty in nature,
the miracle of birth, the agonies of death, poverty, and war. With so much
possibility in life, and so much grief, I can’t believe this is it. The
evidence is just too strong for an afterlife, not to mention the comfort and joy
the thought of heaven brings. I don’t know what will happen when I die; I
simply believe something will. Lately, I am working on avoiding hell, which is a
condition I almost sought out in my earlier weaker moments.
I once wrote a poem based on the famed Pale
Blue Dot photo, and also a sonnet on the Hubble
Deep Field photo. The former was taken as Voyager 1 left the solar system,
and shows the whole planet Earth afloat in a thin shaft of sunlight. The latter
is a time lapsed photo that shows all of the galaxies that occupy a tiny speck
of the night sky. Both seem to me to be amongst the most important and powerful
photos ever taken, for their images really slap some reality into those filled
with human hubris. Do you agree?
Yes, I agree. We always like to say in a group that I belong to, “We thought
we were the center of the Universe.” I have been uprooted from that, and now I
enjoy a new perspective of how small I really am. It makes me both value what
little I have, yet, explore what else is out there. It’s like a friend once
told me, “The more I get to know things, the more I realize how little I
know.” It’s both humbling and inviting. A reason to go on.
DS: Let me now
quote from an essay I did on Harold
Bloom: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the
Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests
purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract
basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any
measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & sBAentists have this.
It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply-
espeBAally where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able to lead
observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the
Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts-
or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to
see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good
predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic
(Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose
will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or
Functionary3 .’ What are your thoughts on
this? Where would you place yourself on such a scale?
BA: I’ve never
enjoyed ranking myself, at least publicly. I think I do have some qualities of
all three types of intellect, but whether I have more or less than others is
something I left behind in school.
When I interviewed Steven Pinker,
he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at least soBAally,
academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is something I don’t
think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is wholly ‘outside’
the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with an IQ of 180, and a
Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the 180 may be better
suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or Visionary Mind, will
be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ measures narrow problem
solving, but is utterly useless in regards to creativity. To use an analogy:
think of vision tests. The person with 20/20 person may see better and more
clearly than the 20/50 person, in normal light. But the 20/50 person can turn on
X-ray vision. While the vision is not clearer than 20/20 it does see something
the 20/20 will never see. Any thoughts?
I agree that intelligence comes in many forms and varieties. I always thought
the prostitutes were pretty smart for getting paid to have sex.
DS: On the
subject of human thoughts, let me turn to a related topic, human discourse. One
of the reasons I started this interview series is because of the utter dearth of
really in depth interviews, in print or online. With the exception of the Playboy
interviews, such venues are nonexistent. Furthermore, many people actively
denigrate in depth and intelligent discourse, such as this, preferring to read
vapid interviews with 10 or 12 questions designed to be mere advertisements for
a work, sans only the page numbers the canned answers are taken from. Why do you
think this is? What has happened to real discussion? Old tv show hosts like Phil
Donahue, David Susskind, Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder, even Bill Buckley- love him or
hate him. Only Charlie Rose is left on PBS, but his show airs near midnight. Is
conversation, which an interview is merely a rigorous form of, dying?
I literally mourn for the days when words mattered. I think a big part of the
problem is that people have lost the ability to laugh at themselves. This can be
most poignant in the case of mental illness, but is also true of a vast number
of people. The world has lost perspective. Everyone is chasing the buck and will
do just about anything to get it. A sense of trust and pride that was out there
when I was growing up seems only a memory. Of course there are enclaves where it
still exists, like Cosmosetica, and that’s what I seek out.
what is in store, in the next year or two, for you?
BA: I want to write
stories of justice that will move people to tears. I believe, until a sense of
justice pervades not only in the law schools and courts, but society as a whole,
we will have a screwed up society. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young chided us to
find the cost of freedom. My goal is to take up the call for justice, if only
for those who suffer mental illness.
DS: Thanks for
this discourse, Bruce, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you
BA: You never asked
me about my angel which was so prominent in Fight. Yes, she still guides
me every day.
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