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The Magic of Open Mic Poetry: Why We Should Support Open Mics, Even When We’ve “Outgrown” Them

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Cred: Marlanda Dekine

Go ahead, light a candle. Take the shot of tequila. Or espresso. Strap on the gladiator heels. Slip a notebook into your purse or tote or pocket. Get nervous, maybe, heart-sweaty. Sneak into the restroom and practice in front of the mirror. Rehearse standing still, holding your hands by your side so they will not dance with abandon. Go out and meet the others. Dap and pound and hug and shake hands and kiss cheeks. Greet the poets, the temporary saints of whatever cafe or church or dive bar where you will worship. When there remain spaces to sit, sit. If not, remain standing. Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. This is no place for golf claps or appreciative murmuring, but rather the noise that bodies only ever make in celebration or orgasm.

This is an open mic poetry night in Charleston, South Carolina.

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Cred: Marlanda Dekine

There is something holy about sharing oneself on stage. Whether we share our trauma or our joy, our stories or our songs, our blessings or our forgiveness, poetry becomes a burden we share. Every second Friday of the month, I travel back to Charleston, SC to attend Poetry Night at Eclectic Café. Half of those weeks, I take on hosting duties, by now a reflexive role. Step onto stage, start telling a few jokes. Introduce the poets, get out of the way. Sometimes planning open mic nights becomes stressful, especially the search for suitable featured poets who perform in the midpoint of the evening a thirty to forty minute set. Poets, young and old, arrive before seven o’clock, and they—some with extreme trepidation—sign their names onto The List.

What is routine is also in a way a ritual. Although I no longer attend any church or religious institution, I attend open mics with a serious devotion. Sometimes I even jokingly refer to the stage as the pulpit. The poets & musicians, the monologue-practitioners & amateur comedians, they bring with them a special kind of magic that transforms every room into a sanctuary.

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Cred: Marlanda Dekine

The venue itself is beautiful—these days we perform at Eclectic Café, a café-restaurant-vinyl store-performance space-hybrid. But the venue has changed countless times throughout the years, and yet the spirit remains the same.

It has always surprised me to hear poets discuss poetry that engages the world as if there exists any other kind of poetry. Some poets scoff at the notion that poetry might be anything other than esoteric, that it might consider politics, culture, race, class, and local issues, and yet these too are worthy of our attention. Perhaps more-so than flowers and the belly-button-gazing self. Open mic poetry typically speaks to the world directly.

But there persists a staunch elitism, especially among academic poets, concerning open mics. They claim that open mic nights inevitably procure mediocre and uncomplicated poetry, and that listening to “bad” poetry is a waste of their time. And yes, after hosting poetry shows for four years, I have certainly listened to my fair share of poorly-written verse, but the point of poetry is not to create some unassailable and unsurmountable

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Cred: Marlanda Dekine

body of work. There’s a sense in the broader poetry world that open mics exist only for amateurs, that a professional poet’s words must be read in hallowed halls, in libraries.

Poetry, when read out loud, demands our attention. It demands we take seriously what the poet has to say. Of course there exists beautiful poetry that exists for its own sake—to be beautiful, to be transcendent. But poetry too is a tool of communication. Although I rapaciously consume new books of poetry every month, I understand the majority of the reading public does not actually read poetry.

 

Let me repeat that—the majority of the public that reads generally do not invest time in reading poetry. Which is, I know, a detriment—reading and considering poetry leads one to leave a more rich life. But how should we expect average people to engage with poetry when we keep it in a high tower, when we publish it in obscure literary magazines. Even the most well-respected literary journals do not reach the ears of what one might term “the average person.”

Instead, we must bring poetry to the people. Open mics are the public spaces through

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Cred: Marlanda Dekine

which we share our love for poetry. Perhaps the first-time poet will read a poem you find dull or poorly written, but then is it not in your interest—in the interest of capital-P Poetry—to invest in that person? To encourage that person to continue writing and write then something transcendent and challenging?

Open Mics become venues to vent frustration, to celebrate triumphs, to express rage, to critique social practices, to build community. Every time someone unloads their worries into a microphone, we must share that burden. That story becomes not only something insular but something that may exist outside of the person, carried on the shoulders of dozens of strangers. Because here’s a hard and strange truth.

Four years ago, I started The Unspoken Word with a fellow poet at an odd dive bar called King Dusko. I have since attended hundreds of poetry shows throughout the country and even some around the world. Of course seeing your favorite poet read can be a sublime experience, but so too might be watching an amateur poet. A fifteen year old trembling at the microphone, holding in her hands a crumpled sheet of notebook paper, and on that paper is a poem. A poem that might tonight change your life or change your mind or change for a moment your perspective.

In this way, poetry allows us not only to emphasize with our fellow Earthlings but grasp their shoulders afterward, to commune with poets in your city. To say thank you.

The Strange Pleasure of Destroying Paperbacks

It was a pleasure to burn.
The first line of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 lingered above my head, a dust cloud of self-conscious parody, as I ripped a paperback Debbie Macomber romance in half. I dropped the halves of the destroyed book into a plastic tub and reached for another. Like a papery slurp, a satisfying sound, the tearing.
Six months ago, I was still working at a used bookstore in North Charleston, where we exchanged used books for store credit. Part of the job entailed pricing these books. We referred to laminated charts on the wall and adhered the correct stickers to the covers’ lower right corners. At first, I struggled to apply the sticker correctly, the small rectangle slanting askew when I punched the book with a price-sticker gun. If the books were in poor condition, if their spines were too bent, covers too worn, or pages ripped, we destroyed the books.
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When I first began working the job, the task inspired goosebumps. Seemed a sacrilege, maybe a crime. To destroy a book. The book as an object had long been a holy thing—I refused to throw away or donate books, my bookshelves double-stacked and overstuffed.
I tried to do it gently, the stitching in the book’s spine popping like muscled sinew, and this seemed like a too-slow torture. After a week, two weeks, I performed the role with glee. Sometimes I clutched both covers in two hands and tore the book completely in half, its innards fluttering into the plastic tub graveyard. We hardly ever gave this treatment to new or rare books, anything that could still be sold. But for a redundant romance novella, a Christmas one-off murder mystery, or a copy of Twilight (of which we had dozens, hundreds maybe), for these books came the tearing. This process made sense too because we often had too many books on our shelves and each day we performed the minor Sisyphean task of pricing and shelving new books. Hundreds arrived each day.
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It was difficult too not to feel an inkling of envy. How did these brainless books sell so well? How did they even get published? I waited until I had worked at the bookstore for three months before letting on that I too was a new author and I had a fresh book out. I was minted a real writer. I had waited because I was aware at how egotistical it sounded to announce so soon after meeting someone, “Oh, I’ve published a book.” Especially to English majors struggling to publish their own work.  But in the months after the first book’s release, I began feeling less and less like a real writer.
I had just returned, upon starting the job, from the biggest book festival I had ever attended in Decatur, Georgia, where I met several famous authors and gave a short reading and talk about my own book. I maybe sold two books that weekend and sat down to speak with my publisher about my failure to actually market the book. It came out the Spring of my senior year of college, and soon after I graduated, I dived into the messy world of food and beverage. The high of being a newly-minted real writer didn’t last long.
So of course I harbored some small meanness toward the plot-less romance novels, the bestsellers crammed with butchered sentences, and pop fiction flying off the shelves. My only revenge to maim the physical objects, proof of human hubris undone. How could anyone expect to create anything meaningful, write anything lasting, if one day it might end up bruised and un-sellable if one day I might be tearing it in half, partially mourning and partially celebrating the book’s demise?
I applied for the job at the bookstore to learn how the business, the real day-to-day 13047849_638515372962394_4552141268791718011_obusiness, of books happened. I learned that bookstore employees suggest books only because they love them. I learned that the business of selling books had more to do with practicality than any lofty ideal of selling literature.
But I knew also that it was a magical moment, when a customer approached the register with a book I loved. One I might gush about, enthusiasm spilling between us. The books were cheap too. Most were less than three dollars. And for that amount, I might send someone home with a small miracle.
[You can find copies of Derek Berry’s first novel Heathens and Liars on Lickskillet County on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and PRA Publishing].

“Banging at the Gates of American Literature”: I’m an Idiot, But Please Take Me Seriously

On Monday I wrote an essay about writing and acted as if I knew what I was doing. I don’t. But I wrote a book. That’s the good news. I wrote a book, but I’m not sure that necessarily means I know anything about writing books. Maybe ask me after the sixth book comes out. Maybe ask me in ten years, and I’ll have adopted a more seraphic ability to disperse writerly wisdom. Until then, I’m an idiot. I’m a very serious idiot who takes writing very seriously, if not many other things in life.

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Imagine I’m the proverbial monkey at the typewriter, and I’ve written enough that something I’ve written is rather good. Perhaps this is an accident, perhaps not. If you do anything for long enough, you get good at it. That’s old wisdom, isn’t it? Isn’t it? I would not know. I’m an idiot who got really lucky.

This afternoon (morning in my mind) I sat in my fiction writing professor’s office and listened to his criticisms of a new story I gave over to him. Too long, he said– he compared the plot to a dog escaping the yard and running into traffic. Keep the dog in the yard, he advised. And then he asked me to cut the story (over 8,000 words) almost in half (he is allowing me only 5,000 words). I nod, I nod. I am in this moment terribly inadequate at expressing what I want to say about the story. Or mention what the story’s about.

On paper, I can write sentences clean as a disinterred dinosaur bone. But I open my mouth, and the slugs of incomprehensible babble spill forth.

What I mean to say is this: I am a writer, but that does not necessarily mean I’m someone worth listening to. I’ve got a few stories to tell, and I hope you think they’re good. God, please like me. Please, just give me a chance.

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People keep asking, “Hey Derek, how do you feel now that the book is coming out?”

“It’s terrifying,” I tell them.

Of course I’m excited, practically electric with anticipation. But also I am struck with the terror that other people will finally read my work. And no, I cannot take back and book and rewrite it. I cannot, as I did this morning the office of my fiction writing professor, get back the story with comments. It’s done, cement, finito.

But no worries. I am proud of what I’ve produced. I’ve put several years of thought into the book. It reminds me of this idea I’ve been playing with lately. Whenever I speak to creative people, particularly those educated in universities, they tend to look upon “normal people” as boring. As robots pressing on and on, shackled by their pointless labor. These people are un-human, incapable of the higher thought available to those set free by the creative spirit. And that, to me, is such a stupid thought. So I claim not to be an intellectual, not to be interesting at the sake of others. I am an idiot. Just like you. We’re in this together, this trying to be better, this learning to be human. Our communal idiocy in the pursuit of meaning gives our lives meaning.

I think we too often dismiss the possibility that the inner lives of strangers are as fascinating and multi-faceted as our own. Often, I fall into the trap when writing of assuming that readers won’t get it. But I get it, and I’m an idiot! So please take me seriously. The plea falls from my mouth, limp and strange, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Richard Brautigan once wrote a story called ⅓ ⅓ ⅓ about three idiots attempting to write a shoddy novel. The last lines remain with me because they remind artists of the silly truth. And the silly truth is that no one cares what we do. I don’t mean that as a criticism, necessarily. I mean that the writer, the artist, the sculptor, he or she must care very deeply for the art he or she makes. Brautigan’s story ends like this…

 

“Howdi ther Rins said Maybell blushed like a flower flouar while we were all sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature.”

 

And that’s what I’m doing, who I am. Another idiot, drunk on words and muse-juice, “pounding at the gates of American literature.”

The Body Is Where We Live: On the Importance of Questioning Gender and Embracing Androgynous Forms

The following essay was written as part of a larger art exhibit curated by Roberto Jones called “The Contemporary Form,” which explored androgyny as a contemporary social and artistic concept. I provided the following essay as a plea to explore gendered expressions as not simply a political or artistic curiosity but rather a survival mechanism.

The Body Is Where We Live:

On the Importance of Questioning Gender and Embracing Androgynous Forms

A Short Essay

By Derek Berry

 

Gendered language is the sarcophagus but not the corpse within. You can

claw your way out of the coffin, sure, but how to escape the body? You live there,

every experience, every moment, every love, every thought filtered through the

reality of existing in that corporeal being, one you cannot escape except through

sleep or orgasm or suicide. Even dead, you cannot escape the tongues of

others—those who will name you boy or girl when you only ever named yourself

God or fairy or Leelah Acorn.  The catch, that skin stretches around our

bones, a flesh-prison. A strange virtual reality video game, in which we sit rattling in

the consoles of our skulls, controlling human-shaped vehicles. In these vehicles, we

collide and crash and zip and brake—we live our entire lives within bodies. We do

not even understand what it means to live beyond the body, whether death be a

coda or refrain. So we have these: we own bodies, though several own the language

that describe our bodies. How can we own a name that does not belong to us, one

our tongues have never learned to properly speak? How can we own a body so

inscribed with meaning we did not choose, a library of misinterpretations that

mangle bones, that fertilize graves, and that trap us with organs, with body hair,

with blood. We do not properly understand the physical effects of gender, that these

transgressions do not only happen in discourse or in the classroom or in some

theory-ruled vacuum but rather on the body, in the body, to the body. Always the

body is the final secret exhumed, the final consideration behind the name on the

headstone or taste of the dirt. This is a cemetery we continue to dig.

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Pilgrimage: Final Words on Tuebingen (or… An Attempt to Understand)

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I step out of the student secretary office into the sun and cross the street to the library in order to sit down and write my final thoughts on Tuebingen. I am leaving soon, spending the night at a friend’s flat before flying home tomorrow morning. As I pass across the street, I nearly stumble into The Naked Man.

The Naked Man stands in the park every day and has done so for the past few months, often half-naked. People say he’s crazy. He is a homeless man who dresses either in grass-streaked tidy-whities or a full suit. His favorite hobbies include snapping the branches off trees, assuming fighting stances, drinking beer, and laughing at strangers. He often walks toward strangers in order to laugh at them. That’s so strange, so unnverving.

When I bump into The Naked Man, he gives me a queer look, a cocktail mixture of anger and curiosity. And so I ask in German, “Hey, man, I’ve been watching you for some time now. Why do you do the things you do? I mean, it doesn’t make sense. You stand there and kick the air or talk with strangers? Why do you approach random groups of people to laugh at them?”

And that’s all I want to know, the underlying absurdity of his actions. A reason. A meaningful reason.

The Naked Man stares at me, his mouth breaking into a grin.

And he laughs. And laughs. And says nothing more.

Pilgrimage: Cigarette Culture and the Seven Rings of Bureaucratic Hell

DSCN0015Today I woke at 7am—unheard of in my life as writer, student, and professional slacker. Usually I wake early only if someone promises free pancakes or perhaps a magic genie lamp (though, much to my chagrin, this has yet to occur). But today I have agreed to matriculate in the University of Tuebingen, despite not fully understanding what the phrase “matriculation” actually means. I think it must be a medieval word for torture, something that the Catholic Church did to heathens during the Inquisition. Imagine hanging by your pinky toes upside down when a staunch vaguely-European voice threatens to matriculate you. Truly scary stuff, I swear.

While I sit at a bus stop hacking my lungs out, waiting to return to my underground apartment after undergoing the absurdly difficult process of matriculation, I observe two boys (12, 13) smoking cigarettes. Both strike the same pose, the ubiquitous pose of youthful boredom as popular in Germany as Macklemore haircuts. The older boy rolls a cigarette on his lap with an open canister of tobacco (brand: unknown) and surreptitiously accepts a shared lit cigarette into his mouth from his friend. He inhales deeply and then allows his friend to pluck the cigarette from between his lips to take a few puffs himself.

Because they are young, perhaps they cannot afford each their own cigarettes. Perhaps they enjoy sharing because Germany seems to be a country on the verge of embracing socialism (public transport that actually works! taxes that provide for public schools! retirement benefits!). But naturally they must hide the cigarette in case someone reproaches them. Though underage smoking is illegal, no police will approach, no; police only come when called and barely make rounds except in large train stations and even there they drive hilariously cute automobiles with calming sirens. When a German police car passes blaring its siren and flashing its light, one might mistake this for an ice cream truck.

I ignore the boys for awhile and cough heartily into my scarf. I am sick after walking for hours, lost, in search of the city offices where I might apply for a residence permit. In a few weeks, when I begin my German classes, they promised to guide us through matriculation, and I regret now not waiting, for I need a guide. I need a Virgil to guide me (Dante in this metaphor) through the Seven Rings of German Bureaucratic Hell. I’m seeing a long-form poem already writing itself—rather than The Inferno, I will call this poem The Büro, the journey of one man through the impossible difficulties of German paperwork. If I wanted to be so harassed for coming to a place I would have worn an Obama HOPE t-shirt to a Texas rodeo.

But the sludge through offices is over and my fingers may rest from clutching pen after pen after endless pen, and I may now sit watching these young boys smoke a cigarette together. Once they finish the first, they immediately light up the second. Strange, I think, to be addicted so young, but in Germany this is the most popular vice (after perhaps wefeheisen beer and techno clubs). Almost everyone I have so far met smokes cigarettes. These are no casual smokers, no, not one-a-day smokers or evening smokers, but honest-to-Angela-Merkl cigarette addicts. Everyone on the bus is jouncy to leap off the bus at the nearest stop so they can light up the next cigarette. In bars and clubs, smoking is completely allowed. Smoke fills nearly every room. I learned last night I am allowed even to smoke in my apartment as long as I open the tiny window near the ceiling.

I find this all hilarious, but I do not try to judge. Let be, I think. Let them have their tobacco and smoke it too. Being an American, I try to act very laissez-faire about the entire affair. But I learn quickly that perhaps Americans are not so live-let-live as Germans, at least on the issue of smoking. In America , for example, long ago did lobbies manage to outlaw smoking in restaurants, in the vicinity of restaurants, on public transport, and nearly everywhere else, while in Germany, despite the government wielding a large amount of control over personal life (one must recycle, one must pay various taxes for healthcare, one must go through wildly complicated registration processes), any person can smoke almost anywhere. Despite this idea, on each pack of cigarettes reads the warning: Smoking can be deadly.

But in Germany, smoking can only be deadly cool. The absolute most popular death (save perhaps heart attack after consuming too many sausages).

The sooner a German smokes, the better. So here stand two boys (12, 13) smoking at the bus stop with fervent passion. The bus arrives a moment later, and one boy  smothers the cigarette with the bottom of his shoe before boarding the bus. I sit in the seat in front of them, coughing still into my scarf. And then a mighty sneeze builds in my chest, exploding up my throat until—aah, aah, achooo! I sneeze into my scarf. One boy leans forward and says quite genuinely, “Gesundheit,” which is the German version of “Bless you.”

I tell him, thanks. At least the youth of Germany care about their health.

On How To Become a Writer

Lecturing in a middle-school classroom two months ago on the finer points of poetry explication—in laymen’s terms, explaining that not all lines in poems are, in fact, literal—I fielded questions from the crowd of seventh-grade would-be writers, half of whom actually liked me (because I was young, the teacher insisted) and half of whom squirmed to be released into the wild frontiers of winter break. Hand shot up, “How do you become a writer?”

The question stumped me because—

1.) Am I writer? Do I get to call myself a writer now that my first book will be coming out soon or do I have to wait until I can pay the rent writing? Writers are mythical creatures, like unicorns, and I’m unsure whether I might call myself a unicorn just because I’ve strapped a spiraled horn to my forehead.

2.) I don’t know.

I tell the young girl the only answer that dings at the front of mind, like a mallet against a carnival strength-test. I say, “Write. Just write.”

Seems simplistic, sure, maybe a cop-out answer. I could hear already a collective groan as writers-block-guythe students perhaps anticipated an oncoming lecture on the virtues of hard work. But I could not lie: there’s only one way to become a writer, and that’s to write. Ever since beginning education at university, I have flagellated my ego for deciding not to enroll as an English major with a creative writing concentration. Makes sense, to study writing if you’re a writer.

In some sense, however, I have studied writers for years: I read books, essays, magazines, and poetry. Read, read, read, consume knowledge; write, write, write, spit that knowledge back out in a practical context. I mean not to demean the value of a good writing program, though, because if that’s what works, it works. In my experience, writing programs offer both an incentive and time to write. Studying at university as well as back in high school, I had both incentive and time: I wanted to write books and I made time to write books, stories, and poetry.

There are several paths that might help you become a better writer: taking classes, engaging in writing critique groups, or reading “On Writing” by Stephen King. Or you could read blogs like this. But none of that will matter if you never sit down to put in actual work. Morris L. West, author of The Devil’s Advocate and many other books, once said, “In a longish life as a professional writer, I have heard a thousand masterpieces talked out over bars, restaurant tables and love seats. I have never seen one of them in print. Books must be written, not talked.” (http://www.advicetowriters.com/home/2015/2/6/books-must-be-written-not-talked.html)

There ain’t no hocus pocus, no special pill, and no inspiring book: just write. All the rest’s just background noise. You could be a best-selling author or an amateur middle-school scribbler, but writing makes the writer. So you wanna be a writer? Then pick up a pen or place fingertips to keyboard and begin.

Vignette: Cigarettes in the City

images (22)Everyone in the city smoked cigarettes, the orange-bright ends illuminating every stoop, park bench, and window. If we shut out the lights, cut the electrical lines, we might still be able to read by the glare of a million burning cigarettes, their ashes spilling into the crease between the pages. Many treated their cigarettes with ritual superstition—practicing traditions passed down from the Great War, from the Native Americans, and from the study-abroad semesters in Bulgaria. Each secreted upside down sticks in their packs—the lucky cigarette—absconding white lighters and lighting up with the ends of each others’ cigarettes. When finished, they tapped out the cigarettes in overflowing ash trays, some plastic, others glass.

The smoke, meanwhile, floated above their heads in lazy spirals—smoke took on a life of its own, an animated beast rising and swaying like a drunk ballerina in flats not yet broken in. The bearded man with glasses, reading Kant with a mix of pretentiousness and a sincere desire to understand, the freckled girl with a glinting nose ring—hell, the Catholic Father with his black shirt unbuttoned in the simmering summer heat. Here they sat, sharing communion: rather than a reminder of life, they acknowledged death, welcomed it into their lungs with breaths deep as love.

The priest took a drag on his cigarette, and I wonder why he smokes, if there is reason at all or if it seemed something to do when there was nothing else to do. Some of the people in the city, they rolled their cigarettes. The heathens of the Holy City smoked everything they could stuff into rolling papers, fitting their filters sloppily to the end.

Perhaps he liked smoking for its symbolism, its thematic properties. Cigarettes reflected the American desire for death, the necessity of it with our lives, because without death, we would not be able to justify our wasteful lives. If we were to live forever, then we would be forced to do something, but death had become our ultimate cop-out, our greatest excuse for failure. We could try, try to do something good and impactful, but then too late—you died too soon, oh well.

The embers died out, crackling like a campfire in the jumble of ash trays, and the city grew dark as the smokers fell one by one to sleep.

Why “I Love It (I Don’t Care)” May Have Redeeming Cultural Value

Like English teachers who labor to drain the meaning out of every sentence in a novel, I want to try to deconstruct and explicate the simple, catchy pop tune “I Love It (I Don’t Care)” by Icona Pop. The song has been playing over and over on the radio, and often I must suffer through it because I don’t own an IPod and often forget to bring CD’s. But the tune itself is not exactly without merit—it provokes an interesting commentary on our generation. Do we really “not care?”

First off, if you haven’t heard the song, which is doubtful, or would like a reminder of its glitzy glamorizing of apathy:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxxajLWwzqY

icona-pop-iconic-EP-400x400            After listening to song too many times while driving down the road, I glean two possibilities about the tune’s overall plot. Most likely she’s describing a failed relationship with an older, more serious lover; the other possibility is that she’s actually describing her relationship with her parents. Because of the emphasis on party lifestyle and young hedonism in the music video, I am going to go with the second option.

The main refrain of course is “I don’t care,” which clearly manifests the feelings of youth today, the generation of Icona Pop and me (clearly 90’s children). My generation lacks anything to care about beyond their own petty lives, not because worthy things do not exist, but rather because we do not focus on those things (i.e. war, global climate change, human trafficking, etc.) We don’t care about anything but our own lives, and even those to us seem ethereal, inconsequential. We’re trapped in a system that marginalizes the efforts and desires of the youth, and so we figure, why bother?

I should clarify that when I say we, I mean our generation as a whole, and I am not writing this to defend the perversion of apathy, but rather critique it. In fact, I somehow wonder whether this song does exactly that—while glorifying “not caring,” is it also pointing out the lack of involvement youth have in politics, culture, and their own futures?

After each “I don’t care,” comes “I love it,” which is a disturbing idea. Not only do we not care that we are spiting our parents, but rather we enjoy it. We are proud of our own nihilism.

We reject the wisdom of other generations, instead relying on our innate instincts to carry us through life. See lines: “You’re so damn hard to please, we gotta kill this switch
You’re from the 70’s, but I’m a 90’s bitch.” This line convinces me that the song is talking about more than a failed relationship, but rather a series of failed relationship, the failure for one generation to transfer knowledge to the next; we constantly ignore the advice of the experienced.

Furthermore, we seek an illusion of perpetual twenty-something ecstasy, retaining the notion our lives can be a images (14)nonstop, adrenaline-fueled party, relying on drugs and dancing to keep us in the “Milky Way.” This part of the song reflects our desire to reject earthly principles such as class, money, and politics, embracing a more humanitarian philosophy “up in space.” Of course, the fact that “I don’t care” undermines the means to ever affect such a philosophy for this generation.

We are disappointed with our life has turned out and want something better than what our elders built, but rather than attempt something better, we caustically accept our lot. We do nothing to actually change our situation, simply referring to fact that we don’t even care.

Crashing the car and letting it burn serves as a symbolic act of revenge and rebellion for the singer, but she may fail to see the futility in the act. While angry, she may feel satisfied with her action, but the action is merely symbolic. Her frustration with the person she’s addressing may never be resolved, because she like most of my generation only symbolically rebel from our parents (or rather, from old traditions and old ways of thinking). This is not progress.

images (15)            Progress is changing the way we act and think, not just symbolically crashing cars or getting tattoos or doing drugs or dying our hair or having sex with strangers. Teenagers have been systematically programmed to react in ways that only harm themselves, not the system which has wronged them. Therefore, they become cynical much too young, usually resigned to a world system because “that’s the way it is.”

But I refuse to believe that all of us truly “don’t care,” or even that we “love it.” Maybe I am reading into the song too deeply, but each time I listen to the synth-heavy pop ballad, I think of the responsibility each of us holds for the future and the fact there is no room for apathy.

A Brief Jaunt in the Woods: Appalachian Journal

Last night, I returned with four other guys from a three-day trek along the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smokey Mountains. We imagined a fine stroll in the woods, a few days breathing good air and overlooking mountain vistas, but we ended up with cramped calves, blistered feet, and weathered shoulders. While it did not bring the calm or enlightenment that some people claimed, the mountain trip taught me a lot about expectations, companionship, and the nature of nature.

                Below is a direct transcription of the little journal I kept throughout our hikes, including crazed ideas, admissions, and swear words. The entire journey proved harder than any of us thought, but we made it out alive and mostly intact.

June 9, 2013

12:31pm

Spirit Quest. Walkabout. Seeking.

Whatever cultural term might be used to describe a spiritual journey in the wilderness, this is not it. Rather, this will be a walk to death, the ascension to the hangman’s noose. Like many other confused, existential, directionless Caucasian males in their teenage prime, we chose to amble up into the Smokey Mountain National Park, hike a few miles of the Appalachian Trail.

The sky has decided to piss all over us, and I admit I’m not ecstatic to begin walking through muck and cold rain and liquefied misery.

1:20pm

After a wrong turn, we found ourselves lost along the highway. Using our smart phone devices, we found a new way to the entrance to the park. After picking up a map and looking through the visitors center, we are preparing for the hike.

6:40pm

Having entered the trailhead at 2 pm, we have not yet reached our destination. I sit along, awaiting the slower leg of our group to catch up. I need their water. I am unsure how much further it could be, but I hope I am close. The hike has been far more strenuous than I believed, heaving a fifty pound pack uphill. The incline never ceases, and even when I think I have reached the summit, the trail continues up. The last 1/3 has been tame, but exhausting. The first three miles went up a creek, the water rushing past our soaked shoes as we scraped our legs on rocks and climbed hand and foot. We did not prepare for, certainly did not anticipate, the sheer pain of going on and on, trapped in a steaming hallucination of green.

We spotted a single snake, but our worst enemy is the streams. Some have simple brides or even fallen trees to cross, but many we fall into, slipping on the rocks or moss. At the beginning of our journey, just past the first friendly mile, I took off my shoes to clear the stream, clinging to branches as I skirted along the clumsy rocks. My sleeping bag splashed into the stream, soaked through, and for a mile, I carried the bag draped over my shoulders.

I hear my comrades approaching and admit the time to sit has been restful. Like with every new horizon, I pray the campsite lies just beyond.

7:30pm

Steeper. The camp is nowhere in sight, and I feel my body and mind slipping away. My shoulders bulbous and raw and red.

8:10pm

This trail mocks me. Every tree masquerades as a peaceful meadow, but is only another sharp turn up this damned mountain. The Devil hovers behind every boulder, beckoning with bread, with rest, but there is nothing.

It is dark and grow darker. A storm brews in the distance, and not for the first time today am I considering whether I will die here.

8:30pm

I am taking more frequent breaks as I begin to lose hope. I sit on a log observing the first sign I’ve encountered in hours. Ricky encountered me on the trail, on his way to locate Stephen who had disappeared long ago. The sign says there is only a half mile left to the campsite, and I remember believing we had only 1.5 miles left after the 3 mile marker, but we crossed that at 5pm.

My feet are blistered, numb. Even to curl a toe takes great exertion. But Ricky’s presence made me feel better.

It just started raining.

9:00pm

Inane thoughts, rambling.

As I neared the site, I stepped wrong, rolling my angle. I could feel my muscles stretch unnaturally, snapping loudly. “Arrrgh. Fuck.” I collapsed, thinking the worst: that my ankle was broken, that I was trapped.

Three weeks before in La Habana, Cuba I had sprained my ankle and been unable to walk properly for a day– it still affects me now. If I suffered the same fate on the trail, we would be stranded. Alone, I called out the names of my friends. No one could hear me.

Clutching my foot, I assessed the damage. This did not feel as before, and I suspected I could walk given time. Putting weight on the foot, I hobbled across the trail until I felt comfortable walking upright. Then I hefted my pack onto my shoulders and plod on. Each step sent a jolt through my leg, but by now, that sort of pain felt irrelevant.

Funny to think, but while making the final stretch, I thought of how I could transform this experience into a lesson, the sort of clear, cut-and-dry morality  imposed in a standard college essay or fable. Nothing came to mind except that I had overestimated myself– we all had.

We were weak, broken by strain, and lost. Five inept white bys, wondering the dark, dangerous forest.

I reached the camp where Tim and Ricky were, and I set up a tent with ease. While waiting on food, I spilled a bag of granola in my tent, and I cursed myself for bringing rats and other vermin to me.

Ricky showed up with Stephen, both exhausted, and we ate soup. Stephen, like all of us, had at once lost hope on the trail, sitting down on the side, refusing to move. In that way, we are relying on each other to keep going, and I hope we can continue to do this tomorrow.

We learned that the estimation of the trail (4.5 miles) had been wrong and instead we had hiked 6.7 miles. That was why my mind suffered delusions after mile 3, because I thought I was nearly finished. But the I had not even been half-way. Not even half-way up what we learned was the second-highest mountain in the entire park.

10:30pm

We talked for a long time, eating a type of soup that warmed itself when you shook the can. It began to rain in earnest, and we retreated to our tents.

 

June 10, 2013

8:15am

Woke up to my tent filled with water, my shoes and much of my clothes soaked. I could not sleep in my wet sleeping bag and so made do with two towels covering me.

8:49am

The others still sleep.

Not all is misery here. I trekked up a hill to the mountain’s peak, though a good view is impossible through the thick of green leaves. But finally I am feeling a bit of accomplishment at climbing this damned mount.

10:30am

Waiting for clothes to dry. Packing up.

11:45am

Our first leg of our journey proved easier than yesterday, a few brief inclines but mostly flat trail. The descents are no easier, and we move slowly to avoid tumbling down. I packed my bag better with the mostly dry sleeping bag packed inside. We rest now on a bunch of logs. We overlook the mountains draped in white gauzy mist.

12:45pm

We have stopped to cook lunch. My shoulder burn again under the strain of a heavier pack. The trail has been tame, and most of yesterday’s rain has evaporated. No more sliding, spilling, and falling.

The mountain we climbed yesterday was one of the highest in the range, more than 5,000 feet. Hopefully, we will not continue to underestimate this wicked place.

For lunch, we’re eating from a  giant canister of beans and rice. I admit I’m quite hungry, and we will not eat again until nearing nightfall. The sun is very warm in this spot, the wind refreshing.

4:12pm

We arrived in the campsite an hour ago. I have set up my tent. Others are currently setting p theirs. Very hot at the moment, but the bulk of the day’s strain is behind us. The final miles was perilous and muddy, and we hiked through more creeks.

7:00pm

Woke up from a nap. Cooking chicken, rice, and beans with pita chips.

The others have decided against spending a day to explore the area. There is not much to explore we have not already, and we will want to come home soon. The adventure might end prematurely, but it has been an adventure.

9:00pm

We started a fire and sat around it, some of us smoking cheap cigars we bought at the Cherokee Indian Reservation. We’re going to sleep now, as tomorrow might be the longest leg of our journey yet.

 

June 11, 2013

1:12pm

Woke up late at 10am with a stiff back and throbbing head. We encountered an old man hiking who simply grunted in our direction. Now we have learned that he hiked a mere 0.3 miles from a highway to our campsite; we had the opportunity to simply hike out, then hitch-hike, but instead we are already headed in the opposite direction. I do not particularly like this loyalty to the direction we’re headed because we’re unsure how far we must travel.

We left at 12pm and made decent time to the sign we’d encountered before. 1 mile uphill was more difficult than yesterday’s 4 miles down. We have stopped for lunch now– rice and beans again.

1:50pm

Making lunch now that Kevin and Stephen have caught up. Cooper Creek Trail is at 1.5, then there will be more space before we reach Mingus Creek Trail. Hopefully not too far. Though we feel nearly finished, we have a long way to go.

We have decided to eat at Waffle House once back in civilizations, and the thought of a sizzling burger will hopefully keep me moving forward.

5:23pm

Walked another 3.6 miles since lunch. The first 1.5 to Cooper Creek felt easy, so when we reached the crossroads, we kept hiking without stopping. The next 2.1 miles almost killed me.

Half a mile in, we started uphill, back up that damned mountain we climbed the first day. This was a place called Deep Low Gap, a huge elevation change between two high mountains. We spent the morning going down one, and I just spent three and a half hours hiking up the other.

I slowed, dehydrated, exhausted, and eventually I fell behind Tim and Ricky who took the lead. Our pack spread thin, stretched across miles of mountainous terrain. I took many breaks, fearing I could not make it.

700 feet before this intersection, I stopped, plopping down. I saw nothing, my mind turning to mush, but I came to two realizations in that moment of desperation:

1.) I could not go on.

2.) It didn’t matter.

Even though I thought there was no way I could go on, it didn’t matter. I had to go on. I needed to stop, but I could not. This mountain cared nothing for what I thought I could or could not do– it never considered my limitations. The thought of it growing dark again, being trapped here, haunted me. I stood up and kept on, not because of any resolve or new-found strength, but because there were no other choices. Soon, I spotted Ricky and Tim at the intersection, and I collapsed next to them.

Here, there was nothing to learn, but what pain could teach me, and somehow, despite the fact I knew deeply I could not make it, I had made it. And there were still 3 more miles to walk, heaving that pack.

5:55pm

We worry about Kevin and Stephen who have not reached our stopping point yet. They have fallen behind. Ricky and Tim have walked back down the path, sans their packs, to locate them.

8:21pm

We reached the end, after plodding through creeks, and I rolled my ankle again. We waited for ten minutes and continued. Seeing the parking lot brought great relief. Everything did– sinks and toilet seats and the promise of air conditioning. I dresses in fresh clothes I had kept in the van. We washed our muddy legs in the restroom.

We took the Blue Ridge Parkway, which gave us views of those mountains of wicked beauty, all the view we never got climbing them.

8:29pm

Strange to think we camped at the second-highest campsite, seeing these mountains tower over us now. In a way, we feel like conquerors. Weakened by war, but victorious.

8:44pm

Saw an elk on the side of the road. A much more interesting animal than ever we saw trudging through the trail. Up there, there were deer, snakes, and bugs– mostly bugs.

9:30pm

We’re sitting now at a Waffle House, that wonderful bastion of civilization, that beacon in the distance we each crawled towards. We may not return home until very early tomorrow morning, but that seems a little irrelevant now, as the smell of hash browns floats under our nostrils. Mostly, we’re broken, though mostly, we’re exhausted, though mostly we’re satisfied. Never mind– mostly, we’re just hungry.