seriously serious

I think artists are just people.  We’re like poorly compensated accountants. Or baristas. Or cubicle jockeys (of which I am one). It’s a craft and a skill, sure, but that’s about it. It’s not a lot more mysterious than that. I think that there are as many ways of being artists as there are artists themselves. That may sound like a cop out, but it’s true. Lupe Fiasco doesn’t do it like me, and I don’t do it like Adrienne Rich. And thank god for that – the world needs more variety, not less.

I became an artist because I loved to read. I read voraciously as a kid, and still read quite a bit. By the time I was twelve, I had a solid grasp on grammar, and didn’t need my middle school’s idea of language arts pedagogy. So instead of figuring out where the quotation marks go in a sentence, I wrote poems about the cute blonde girl in the front row, and then about all kinds of different topics. Most of them were awful, but Mrs. Deutsch, my sixth grade English teacher, praised them and accepted them for the middle school lit mag. This was the first positive reinforcement I had gotten for, well, much of anything (I had a Tough Dad and an Absent Mom. It kind of went from there. I wish the story were more dramatic, but my entrance into the world as an artist basically boils down to boredom and pubescent libido.

When you’re a teenager, especially a teenager in a small town, you try to grab hold of anything that distinguishes you from the rest of the herd. So I wore all black, got myself a trench coat, and wrote a lot of poetry. Mostly mopey, lonely ass shit that I thought was Serious and Important at the time. While other kids were sexually experimenting, I was killing orcs and writing more poems about more girls that wouldn’t go out with me. I won’t say it was easy to be a teenage outcast, but the implications of being an artist at sixteen are very different from the implications of being an artist at thirty.

These days, while I am more committed than ever, I am acutely aware that people don’t view me as a very serious person. This amuses and annoys me in equal measure. On the days when I’m surrounded by popped collars, binge drinking, office talk, and other forms of industrial-grade douchebaggery, I’m really glad that I spent those hours studying Rilke’s Duino Elegies back in college. But then there are days when older folks (including my aforementioned Tough Dad) think that the financial results of my life choices make me some kind of failure. And it’s hard to fight off that impression, especially when I see my coworkers at my office pounding through promotion after promotion, while I’m still entry level after seven years.

That being said, the girl (woman now, I suppose – we were in our early twenties when we met, and it’s been seven years) that I’m thinking of has completely given up on her dreams of being an actress, while I’ve written poem after poem, refined my voice, been on two slam teams, gotten several plays produced, am working on two more, and have learned audio engineering, electronic music composition, and DJing on the side. Her net worth and her retirement are probably a hell of a lot more secure than mine, but I wonder if she feels fulfilled. We’re not close enough friends, so I haven’t asked. I wonder if I’ll ever know what it’s like to be on that side of the fence. I’d like to think that I made the right choice, but it’s impossible to know.

If I told you I didn’t care about money, I’d be lying. The only people who don’t care about money are the children of rich folks, and that I ain’t. While I’ve got a bit of a safety net (if my wife and I had to move back in, my father would just berate me until I wished I was dead) the future is wide open, but not in that “life is full of possibilities!” way – more in that “open field with no cover, surrounded by snipers” way. Living in the tri-state means that a few bad economic choices can kneecap your whole fucking life. I’m still in the midst of figuring out how to navigate that in my early thirties. First world problems, I know.

So why do I stick with it through the parental disapproval, career stagnation, and financial trepidation? Well, for one thing I’m a stubborn son of a bitch, and once I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it, goddammit (This includes proclamations made when I was 14, like, “I’m going to be a writer!”). But there are other distinctly political reasons.

Poets should tell the fucking truth. There’s no financial incentive to being a poet, so there might as well be a spiritual one; poets ought to be truth tellers. When news lies, the TV lies, the internet lies, novels and history books lie, the poets need to tell the truth. Maybe that is an overinflated sense of the poet’s worth to society, but I don’t care. My personal truths might change, but the truth about oppression, about being “other”, about racism and sexism and classism and privilege? Those truths have been the same for centuries, and the fact that it’s still going on just means that it needs the truth needs to be told again and again, until something changes. So I try to tell those truths, the ones that I can claim as my own and the ones that I try to be an ally for, as often as I can. I do this because Asian people are expected to be quiet. Because that expectation is racist, and because I like breaking it.

Poets love language. We see it for all it can be and all it does and we believe that there’s some inherent value in them, something sacred. Advertising uses words to convince you to buy something. Politicians use their words to disarm your sense of outrage. Poets use words to create a community. No sports drink ads or campaign speeches can create these things. A good poem will help you realize that there is somebody out there who feels how you feel, whereas most other mainstream uses of language, bent and perverted by contemporary capitalism, are designed to make you feel isolated and insufficient (so you’ll buy something).

I know this isn’t exactly a universal belief amongst poets. I acknowledge that. Remember what I said earlier about variety being important? Yeah, that. I’ve been writing since I was twelve, so I’ve actually spent more of my life on this than not. Now, that doesn’t make me some kind of expert on the craft of poetry; hell, I’m barely competent at making beds and doing laundry. I just know I want this, as much as I did over a decade ago. I don’t know if that counts for anything, but I do know that when everything else fails, I still come back to words. To art. To something that I have trouble describing. So maybe this whole thing is kind of mysterious after all.

Or maybe my dad is right, and I should’ve become a lawyer. But I don’t know any lawyer who gets to curse as many times as I just did in his actual job. So, fuck it, let’s roll.

Justin Woo - Photo by Leah Rae

Justin Woo is a Rutgers graduate, Jersey City resident, and Chinese-American poet, theatre artist, and DJ. He has performed at universities, theaters, and slam venues in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire including the 2007 NYC Fringe Festival and the Tony Award-winning Crossroads Theatre.
He was a member of the 2011 and 2012 JC Slam team, and is a slam committee member and resident DJ at JC Slam.
He has collaboratively created several multidisciplinary spoken word theatre pieces. He is currently writing “System Failure,” a science fiction play.
His goal is to encourage positive social and political change through the creation and performance of startling, extraordinary poetry and theatre.