Finding The Boho Zone
There's a song by Joni Mitchell called "The Boho Dance" that became something of an anthem for me when I first heard it back in the early '80s. One verse struck me in particular, living as I was in thrilling East Lansing, Michigan:
You read those books where luxury
Comes as a guest to take a slave
Books where artists in noble poverty
Go like virgins to the grave. . . .
It's an old romance, the Boho Dance.
I was in grad school at the time, reading those books and dreaming of what life in New York City might be like among the poets of Saint Mark's. I knew, for instance, that Allen Ginsberg kept a sleazy little dive in the East Village—what I thought of as the Boho Zone—and this seemed, from my perspective, infinitely superior to Diane Wakoski's teaching post at Michigan State. Anything was better than East Lansing, but New York was definitely Mecca. Diane herself had been one of the original St. Mark's poets; didn't that prove New York was the place to be a poet? So, while teaching writing as a graduate assistant, I wrote a descriptive essay about the Boho Zone loft I wanted in New York, an essay I read over and over again as a sort of prayer.
The loft was on the corner of Bleecker and Broadway: 3,800 totally open square feet with fourteen foot ceilings and a wall of windows, full of books and neon and brass and a Eurokitchen. An office with a computer, a printer, a roll top desk and leather chairs, nestled cozy beneath the skylight and outlined by bookshelves, divided the loft in two. On one side was the frequently used kitchen and living/dining area, behind the office the master suite of bath, walk-in closet, and sleeping area. It certainly wasn't Ginsberg's walk-up. It wasn't, in fact, ideologically anywhere near what I thought of then as the Boho Zone, but that particular contradiction didn't occur to me at the time. Diane had a great house—but, I reasoned, she'd sacrificed stimulating poverty in New York for deadening luxury and security in East Lansing.
I eventually moved to New York City and ran across that old essay eight years later. The introduction was stiff and pompous and artificial, but what really stung me was the irrepressible romanticism and naivete. As if any but old, fully tenured faculty (if that) could afford a 3,800 square foot loft. As if any adult would really want to live at Bleecker and Broadway, especially on weekends. As if any woman would want that much space to clean. I live now in the top 400 square feet of a row house in Brooklyn, with 8 foot ceilings, and a tiny office where what passed for the bedroom should be. My apartment is full of books and brass and glass, and a room that might someday be a real kitchen if the landlords ever bother to do more than stick appliances and a sink in it. Saint Mark's is a half hour subway ride away and, of course, not what I expected, but I've discovered that this is just as much the Boho Zone as Ginsberg's walk-up.
I’ve run into facsimiles and near misses of that mythical loft in my peregrinations around New York: in Stephen Jay Gould’s library in his loft on Greene Street; in my friend Steven’s mini-loft in the Flatiron District; in the studios of my painter pals Adam and Marcia. And there are things in that mythical loft that I live with now: the innumerable books; the posters, prints, brass rubbings I brought from East Lansing and England; the calligraphy pens and inks and computer; the convertible futon. The latter item, however, has lost its rosy tinge of romanticism for me, from having to make it up every day, as I obsessively do. I find myself longing now for a substantial antique sleigh bed complete with a Sealey Posturpedic mattress and ensconced in a real bedroom. My friend Carol—a painter—and I worry frequently about this propensity for amenities during our weekly pub crawls. Is the desire for a real bed an indicator of our hopeless bourgeois-ness? What's this "noble poverty" stuff anyway, besides a conscience-salving device for the talentless wealthy? If we desire these nice things, does that mean we don't have the artistic equivalent of "the right stuff"? That we're merely in love with the idea, the romanticism, of being struggling artists? I mean, Diane has a nice house. . . .
I had a disturbing conversation about these questions the other day with my mother. As a child of the Depression, she worries constantly about whether I have savings (I don't), health insurance (ditto), and job security (does anyone?). She wants me to have good furniture, a set of Limoges china for entertaining, a microwave, and I'll admit I wouldn't mind having some of these things. But having finally chucked my corporate job and set myself up as a freelancer, I'm now in the ranks of what I've seen called the "privileged poor," those of us with good educations, an appreciation of fine art, and no capital with which to indulge in it. On the phone recently, my mother wondered what my goals were now. I asked why I had to have any, beyond living and writing, and she was momentarily stymied. It had never occurred to her that I could give up having really specific goals; I'd always had them: go to college, go to graduate school, get an academic post, teach, write, publish, finish a novel, become well-respected in my field.
Have a steady job.
I'm sure my parents never dreamed I'd end up the way I am, just getting by, unknown. Lower middle class themselves, they expected I would do better than they, and struggled to get me a good education to assure that I would. So I did well in school, but somewhere along the path of my goals, I got sidetracked. I moved to New York, to Babylon. I was seduced by the Boho Zone. But even when I was working in the corporate world, I was never more than lower middle class because I couldn't bear to dress for success. Worse, I was miserably unhappy because I was too exhausted to write when I got home. I discovered, too, that working nine to five in a meaningless job left me with nothing to say. For five years I wrote only a few poems, struggled to finish a novel, and read very little. I mourn the stories that have vaporized because I was too tired to write them down. During those five dry years, I cried a lot without knowing why. At the time, I thought it was because I was carrying a torch for someone I'd left in Michigan, but in retrospect, I think I was still struggling with the tension between what's expected of us as adults—by society, our family, and ourselves—and what we feel we must do.
I've been composing something or other ever since I can remember. I used to ride my bike down the two-lane blacktop in rural Northern Michigan, making up songs and stories and poems. I didn't know what they were then, and didn't start writing them down until junior high. But I knew even at that age that lots of money and a nine-to-five job wasn't what I wanted out of life. I thought I wanted praise, prizes, admiration—don't we all? But when I came home from school every night, what I really wanted was to sit alone at my typewriter letting words flow like a steady electric current down my spine, through my nerves, to my fingers and onto the paper. I wanted to fiddle around with them until they were exactly right, until I knew, unequivocally, they said what I wanted them to, until they looked perfect on the page.
I never imagined that I wanted a corporate job, but I never actually knew what I did want, except to write. I started out in biology, switched to English, and tried out an internship at a magazine. I developed an ulcer during my senior year of college, agonizing over what I was going to do after graduation. Fortunately, I got a scholarship to grad school, where I could put off the decision and spend a lot of time learning to be a good poet. I read, I wrote, I took workshops and classes, I went to readings, I performed myself. During my second round of Ph.D. studies (I switched from English to history), I discovered I didn't want an academic career either. I didn't want a career at all. I liked paper and type, so I wound up learning the fundamentals of desktop publishing, which is what I now do to pay the rent. It does, barely, because I don't want to push it into something more time consuming. In between that and teaching, I stay up until three in the morning and write.
But, mostly, I just live, because it's living that gives me material with which to practice my art. I sit in cafes and bars, I hang out with friends, I write letters, I walk around a lot. I observe. By the time I fled to New York, I had two long trips to England behind me, and had lived in London for about two months. I have lovely memories of roaming around Britain, discovering odd alleys and buildings, standing stones, water clocks, gardens, obscure wine bars and pubs, bits of history and old walls, buskers and spitting fountains. Some good poems came out of those months of wandering. I passionately resented not having the same opportunity to meander around my own city in that first year of acquaintance because I was locked inside all day, trying to make legalese grammatical. Eighteen years later, it's equally absurd to me that I should know Manhattan better than my own neighborhood or borough, that I've missed so many shows at the Met and the American Craft Museum, that I've never been to the Bronx Zoo or Coney Island. I'm slowly making up for lost time now, but New York's a big place, and I've missed a lot by not being a tourist here.
Without knowing why, I was right about New York. It is the Boho Zone—for me. What I didn't realize is that you choose to live in the Boho Zone wherever you are. Diane, in her lovely house in East Lansing, lives in it, writing poems, publishing, and teaching. My ex-roommate, Cathy, lives there in Greenville, South Carolina, working full time and constantly making something—stained glass, dolls, poems, handmade cards—while sharing her life with someone who only dips her feet in it by going to readings and concerts. My friend Marilyn's found one in Cincinnati, where she works as the CEO of a new children's museum and wraps art and artists around her like a cape; her lover is still looking for it there, having not really come to terms with his writing. Another old friend built a cabin smack in the middle of it in Hawks, Michigan, where he sings in the Presbyterian choir, and writes riffs in his journal and great, long narrative poems.
If we're practicing our arts, whatever they are, we're in the Boho Zone. It doesn't consist of a loft, a walkup, a studio, an old farmhouse. It's not a geographical location. It has little to do with what sort of bed you own, and much more with our own activities and the people around us. Another poet I know, who's a full decade younger than I, recently came back from a summer spent in the Hamptons' Boho Zone (how's that for an oxymoron?) sporting a goatee. Reasoning by the "birds of a feather" theory, he figured if he looked like an artist, he'd meet more of them. If he weren't such a good poet already, and if I hadn't had the same idea myself at one time, I'd laugh at him. If you're practicing your art, other artists will find you. There's always an informal, underground network just waiting for you to tap into, wherever you are.
We all need different types of environments in which to create art. Some of us are and always have been "marginal" characters and we know it, so we drift to a city of marginal characters, and find a niche in the mosaic of misfits. That's what I've done, or am starting to do. Unfortunately, many of the things I like best about living here take money to enjoy them. The Met wants a contribution of some sort, and even the Nuyorican Poets Cafe has a cover. So, almost a decade after that essay was written, I'm drawn to a different verse: "It's just that some steps outside the Boho Dance / Have a fascination for me." I'm looking for a way to combine the things I love—writing, paper, type—with making a living. In an age and country where support for art and artists is scarce and the patronage system never existed, every artist has to find their own way to the Boho Zone and figure out ways of staying there. But no matter how much or how little money you make from your art, the real rewards are not what that money buys or doesn't buy you. The real reward is the art you make in your own personal Boho Zone.