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Getting Ready for Northern Spark #nspk71

June 8, 2013

I was asked by the folks at Norther Spark to say a few things about my project, Love Letters in Lowertown. Below are some of the unedited responses to the questions asked. I hope that they get you to think about your own connections and how to personalize how you interact with those people and things you love. There are ways to touch people with your words that don’t compute in this increasingly digital world. Maybe you will be inspired to take to your pen and paper, the postal service or a typewriter, if you can find one and send a little love. And maybe you have some time to join us at Northern Spark. I will be at the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar (308 Prince Street) all night, June 8, until dawn. All along 4th Street in the Lowertown section of downtown St. Paul will be alive! Follow the Twitter hashtag #nspk71 and post a thought or two. Join the festivities and learn more HERE.

A special thanks to Anna Ruhland at Northern Spark for getting me to think about this. Hope to see you all or hear from you.

What was the inspiration behind this project?

Many years ago, I used to write a lot of letters, did it more than anything, even any other kind of writing. I thought it would be nice if there were some productive use for this pastime. It seemed to be my best form. (I had not thought of myself as a poet; I had written a total of two poems at that time.) The idea came to me, maybe because so many of the letters I was writing were, even though I would not admit it at the time, love letters—and I am still toying with the philosophy that all letters are love (or hate) letters, that maybe I could hire myself out to write letters for people who are not letter writers or who don’t have the time or who wanted to impress their girlfriend or maybe boyfriend or whomever, but I thought it would be easier to transfer the requisite emotion if I myself had at least a hint of the affection.

I decided it would not be a good idea, for two reasons. The one that came to mind first was that I did not want to be responsible for writing a wonderful, loving letter for someone who really does not deserve to be thought of so well by the person to whom the letter was addressed.

The other is that being a Cyrano to so many Roxannes would create the most excruciating, unrequitable yearnings and a boat-load of jealousy as I peered into the beauty that was either real or created in my lonely mind. Yes, not such a good idea.

I don’t know how much my mind has changed on this idea, but maybe I am more resilient. Also, there is a lot to write, a lot of ideas about love, instances of love, kinds of love that don’t get the chance to really get out. Most love stories that we see on television and in the movies or in 50 Shades of Gray are kind of lame. My own stories and those of people I know are more compelling and exciting and realistic and powerful—and hotter. They are really more important, deserving and lend themselves better to the beauty of art and the letter.

I mentioned this idea while at the Air Sweet Air Gallery in Lowertown one night. Several of the people there thought it was a great idea. I am still not so sure it is, but it would be great to prove them at least half right. I was thinking that I might try to set up shop for this during the St. Paul Art Crawl, but the Northern Spark venue showed itself, and that’s where I am for now. (I think Cheryl Wilgren Clyne, Alyssa Baguss and Jenny Jenkins are the trouble-makers who egged me on. Blame them if things go awry.)

What can project goers expect from Love Letters in Lowertown?

Come be surprised. Or come surprise me. This is interactive performance art, and what gets produced is a function of my preparation, mental sweat and everyone else’s willingness to share. And my ability to listen, write and set my ego aside. (Ha. Good luck on that last piece.)

What will happen? It DOES really depend on who shows up, but I will ask questions. Hopefully, people will tell me about the person, thing, event or place about which they want a letter written on my Smith-Corona Classic 12 typewriter, with an odd mistake or two or not. I will write it and scan it and share it as widely as someone will allow. What do I expect? I guess I am not the customer, but I am hoping that people will tell me something they want to share that they might have a hard time saying with their spoken voice, either because of logistics, Minnesota shy-boy/girl bashfulness, or just because they don’t have a cool Smith-Corona Classic 12 typewriter.

As a writer/artist, why is the idea behind creating a project centered around love letters important to you versus another form of text?

As a younger writer, I remember being told that writing letters was a good way to practice craft. That was good news to me, since I spent so much time writing letters to friends. One year, I wrote about 380 personal letters. That says a lot, not just a demonstration of the prolific. It says a lot about where I was in my life at that time, emotionally, socially and what my days were filled with—or, rather, what I was trying to avoid.

I noticed in writing those letters—or admitted many years later, that most of those letters were written to women, friends on whom I might have had (might, because maybe I am still not ready to admit this) a small or big crush. In a sense, they were love letters. In fact, most of the letters we write are love letters, love in some form. Even job application letters. In those, we are often directed to hide bits of our love, to not show too much of our funkiness, but that’s no different than the love letters we write. We might gush, but we also want to look good.

The other part of letter writing that is fundamental to sustaining the craft is that with a letter, you know you have a reader. All writers need readers, not just as the reason to write and share, but to know that there is someone who has the emotional proximity to care enough to read it and respond or react—or not react, in a way that gives some kind of light, holds some kind of mirror—even a fun-house reflection and it forces the writer, post-scribe, to be honest about what they’ve written and the real place those words occupy in the universe of letters, ideas, emotions and spirit.

What is the beauty behind transforming something personal into something that is public?

Is there beauty in transforming something personal into something public? I am not sure if I am asking too much of people or if I am exposing too much of myself. Is this merely a voyeuristic exercise or the the concoction made by those out of a desire to be seen naked in public?

I remember hearing a guy who had been dragged after several beers to Art-A-Whirl. In a studio, he sort of invited himself to be a figure drawing model. “You don’t even have to pay me,” he blurted out. I’m not so sure if his drunkenness was the bravery that thrust the words out of him or if it was something that made the prospect of his nakedness tolerable, but regardless, his state contradicted the reality that posing is a lot of work for artists who are often ungrateful as well as contradicting the profundity of taking the most personal into spaces for many eyes.

I’m not so sure that is beautiful. I am not sure that any of this will be beautiful—more or less beautiful than the souls that are borne in this exercise, if real souls actually get borne and if I, myself, am willing to do that myself and let others do it.

But the fact that it seems so compelling to so many people makes me think that there is more beauty here than I am willing to admit. I once had a girlfriend who kept suggesting that continually suggested that I be a figure model. Why she wanted other people to see me naked is something for which I will decline to find answer: I don’t want to know. This does require us to grapple with the boundaries between expressions of beauty and exploitation. Modeling for figure drawing crosses that boundary so many times with a single utterance. It is too complicated to think about for my emotional makeup and I hope it would be for everyone else. What I want to make sure of, in this is that I will be incredibly grateful to anyone who is willing to live a little bit of nakedness for this project. I have listened to some visual artists who have the gall to complain about models. Really, they have no right.

That woman or man is giving them their body to use and express as they, the artist, like. Is it sex? Is it just human beauty? Is the money a model gets worthy of any of it? Regardless, the artist is the artist, the one who is supposed to create. If someone gives us that much, nothing we make can be as great and if we are not humbled by it, we shouldn’t be looking at naked people.

This is not quite public sex, which is a practiced more prone to viewer consumption than the appreciation of beauty. I am waiting to see if it is even public love. Hopefully, it will be a place for folks to deposit their joy and find it’s higher order over banal pleasure.

As much as we are predisposed to think of love or Valentine’s Day or relationships as a corollary for sex or sexual relationships, I hope that what we get at Northern Spark is something more than that. There are lots of people, events, places and realities to love. Sex can as easily and maybe as frequently be used as an expression of hate as it is of love. Love, on the other hand, is love. I hope that the night will be used at times to prove that.

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