There is a small bookstore in Missouri, nestled beside a dim-lit coffee shop, buried underground beneath hoards of curious tourists and hurried capitalists rushing to and fro in mindless consumption-production. It is here, at places like this, unspoiled by an exploitative and appropriative mainstream, where literature can be written, art born, community formed and nurtured.
I arrived in St. Louis Missouri in the fall of 2014 with a half-finished novel and the shallowest familiarity with the place to which I’d arrived. My flat was no option for writing – too many distractions, demons. I had to leave the house, make my mind and my work interact with the world it sought to understand, to respond to quiet conversations overheard across the parlor, typing to the rhythm of clashing dishes and laughter.
Delmar Boulevard divides the city. Well, it is in fact a symbol of the people who divide the city, who choose to hide themselves among peers of their status, protecting their mahogany stairwells behind rot iron fences and security cams while the rest face various forms of starvation. But every dividing line becomes a meeting place, an intersection of sorts, where people and cultures and classes collide, clashing like a thunder both violent and artistic. The day after my arrival, I strolled down Delmar in search of a perch like a sparrow, to write and to dwell in the place I then lived. To expose myself, my consciousness, my work to the raw suffering poverty mixing and interacting and shouting, dancing and smiling with the happy rich liberal profs of the University hidden two blocks over.
There I found it, underground in a metaphorical way so powerful it is almost real – I almost remember having to turn into an alley, descend a flight of stairs, knock on a closed iron door three times with anxious tremors about what the doorkeeper might think of my t-shirt. But that is all nonsense because the bookstore and the coffee shop both stood at street level with back staircases that actually went up to quiet mezzanines. The point is that the place was not endorsed by the all-powerful University of Global Capital Acquisition, nor the city, it seemed, nor the tourists who flocked to the Starbucks down the street. The place was removed. Subterranean.
There are artists and writers and philosophers who gain their inspiration from travel – experiencing cultures and worldviews beyond their own. But for me, for my style and purpose of writing, travel is antithetical to my art. It is, in fact, the local bookstore and coffee shop with all its hidden idiosyncrasies, where my American muse sings. At the bookstore, “Occupancy Limit: 40” I spent whole paychecks on Beats Poets and Bohemian writers, meeting readers and authors in casual conversation over the strength of the coffee next door, the weather, baseball. For finance’s sake the bookstore and coffee shop are separate, but for all intents and purposes they are the same, for the authors I’d speak with over a copy of Kierkegaard would, an hour later, be spilling coffee on the crisp pages of their new book hoping for a refund on both book and coffee but receiving neither.
My point here is that art and writing require a certain familiarity, a certain rare local perspective that can transform the way people see themselves and the world. Cultivating such a thing requires something far more than a trip to Paris or a tour through Rome. It requires a deep, longstanding commitment to a place, a native familiarity, a local accent brought to a broader global discourse. In sum, writing is a form of worship often lost in the mainstream consumption-production cycle. It is to honor a people-place-history (three words bound up in a single concept) by sinking roots, learning, respecting, and ultimately becoming.
About the Author:
Brandon Wilson is the great great grandson of John-Lyle Wilson, the main character featured in his novel, The Half Beneath. A sort of literary troubadour, he spends his life following and writing the incredible Homeric tales buried in the land he loves. Wilson is an alumnus of the University of Kentucky and recently reclaimed 90 acres of John-Lyle Wilson’s former farm just north of Lexington. His literary focus surrounds what he calls “folk fiction” – stories about extraordinary Americans whose lives illuminate the beauty and complexity in American culture.
For more information please visit Brandon’s Facebook Page.