I did not begin 2011’s National Poetry Month with poetry. On Friday, April 1, I witnessed destruction at the closing reception for “Execute Rogue Citizen” at Gallery 13 in Minneapolis. The four artists who make up Rogue Citizen set up a tent and took an axe to unsold artwork. People in attendance had the chance to pardon condemned artwork at the last minute. Many thought Rogue Citizen was pulling an April Fools’ prank; they were shocked when Rogue Citizen artist Shawn Dalsen donned an executioner’s hood and brought the axe down upon the first piece of art that failed to win a pardon. Dalsen, along with fellow Rogue Citizens Eric Mattheis, Matt McGorry, and Matt Wells, offered up “Execute Rogue Citizen” as a comment on the American justice system as well as an illustration of what happens when people fail to value something that should be valued, like people’s lives and the expressions of those lives. It was dramatic, noisy, astonishing, and effective.
This is how artists can wield their influence. As sure as Dalsen swung that axe, the people in attendance had to have some kind of reaction. It’s impossible to witness ear-splitting demolition without response, whether the response is around the political question of how justice is handed out or the more personal question of how an artist can destroy that which is part of them. Annihilation forces people to consider how things might be different and what their role is in a new order of things. Do we stand by? Do we act? Do we allow things to be thrown out and start over?
I am utterly stuck on the idea of throwing things out and starting over when that is a legitimate option. Why? I don’t know about you, but when I try to rework something, whether it’s a poem or an essay or the way I exercise my authority as a parent/editor/citizen, sometimes I cannot step back far enough to make any real changes. What’s already there has become too precious; I can’t give it up even if I know it could be better. That’s when the value of tossing out whatever it is and starting all over becomes evident: the elimination of a work of art or a system – not people, mind you – leaves space for creativity to explode.
This idea is the one I’ll be wrestling with for National Poetry Month. I will not be taking an axe to my computer, but I will be making good use of the “delete” key as I work through poems sitting comfortably on my hard drive. If they are too comfortable, they’re clearly not doing their job and neither am I.
PAYING IT FORWARD:
My colleague Constance Brewer is writing some interesting posts for National Poetry Month over at Life on The Periphery. Please go check her out here.