Dream as Animal J. Smith

Artefacts: Article, ‘Inflammatory musical bows: Burn the Quilt’, written by Dennis Conkin, Bay Area Reporter, volume 27, number 33, 14 August 1997.

Postscript, February 2023: Five months after publishing this poem, I receive a notification that Joe Smith has discovered these words online, and posted them on Instagram with a photograph of the original article clipping from Bay Area Reporter. Joe tells me further details. “This was my final show as Animal J. Smith. In 2000 I was artist in residence with Goat Island Performance Group at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. In 2001 I lost my Lower Manhattan home in the terror attacks of September 11th, and my entire archive was lost. It took me 20 years to recover it ... This year I am resuming my art and performance career, at age 60 ... Since the first of the year, I’ve felt like a studio artist again for the first time in a very long while ... Christo, my muse, said no years are ever lost, we are artists even when no art is made, our entire life is one arc, one work. Mine is one song ... You sensed my spirit fully, 25 years later ... Best to you from San Francisco, where the imagination thrives and art survives.”
Animal is going to disappear, completely

Standing out on the street
Down the backstairs
Of three-three-three
Smoking a nervous cigarette
Squinting into the evening August sun
Beard scratchy and hot with tobacco
Chest tightening
Warmed flannel
Battered leather
Sweat building up in his pits 
It’s the last show of four
And the second-to-last day of summer
Tomorrow he will clear everything out of the shoebox dressing room
Sweep up
Glitter, hair
Hand-cut strips of orange cellophane 
Pack props, instruments
Into two big bags
Sling these over his shoulders
Give Jill the keys
Get his deposit dollars back
Stuff them in his jeans

If he were a different person he’d burn this place down
In a blaze of glory
He sees that
Has a sharp imagination
Swilling gasoline out on the wooden staircase
Clattering down in heels
Tossing a lit match over a perfumed, expanded shoulder
Strutting out onto Valencia
Hailing a cab
Extended glossy nails
If they’re not going to come and fill the place for him
Applaud with hands smacking hard, painfully
Such is their enthusiasm
Clapping at their collective revelation
To get outside immediately
Worked up
Ready to change the world
Right now
C’mon c’mon
A brilliant, dangerous urgency
If they’re not going to show up
Buy a goddam ticket
Spend their money on beer and pizza in the Castro instead
Then nobody should perform here
No tired beat poetry
No simpering cabaret tunes
No dry discussions
Flaky old queers sitting around a microphone on tired chairs
Circling the same unsolvable moans
They can flatten the burnt-up palace
Scrape away the blackened wreckage
Build something, anything
Grey and sleek and pointless
Computer-generated glass by an assistant architect
An intern
From a second-rate firm
Offices to let
To sit empty
Waiting for a start-up
And the right price

But he’s no arsonist
When he’s off stage
He’s not one who burns things up
He’s a vanisher
He’ll spend the deposit on a Greyhound ticket
Slip out of town and into the autumn
Head somewhere quieter
Getting sicker, eventually
An animal that can find a hole
A place to retreat to
Burrow away in a blanket
Fever and hallucinations
Dreaming of grasshoppers
Notes on a flute climbing up scales
Higher, higher

There’s a glory in this too, Animal
In the existing
In the attempt
In the doing

Last drag
Animal closes his eyes
Feels the heat on the lids
That pink-red
Prepares to ascend to the stage