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essay by

Arthur Mortensen

Copyright © 2001 by Arthur Mortensen
& Expansive Poetry & Music Online

During a recent shopping tour of a suburban mall, I couldn't help but notice a dramatic upsurge in noise.  People were not parading in solemn procession from boutique to boutique, hissing at children experiencing a few hours freedom from Ritalin control. Instead, they were gesticulating, talking loudly, even shouting, whether about business, a dispute with a zoning board, a family member, an errant spouse, the car dealer who treated them badly, a politician they wanted to run out of town, on and on.  There was even someone talking heatedly about literature, albeit not poetry.   I was startled.  What had happened to the new rites of American shopping? Had the barbarians entered this secular church of the consumer marketplace?

It was a reasonable question.  With a court-enforced ban on political speech in private spaces, whether at jobs or at malls in Minneapolis, obvious for decades in the absence of politicians, demonstrations, or the heated speech one might have heard in cafes in New York in the 1940's, or in any small town market until small towns were dissolved by shopping centers and malls,  malls were very quiet.  They were intended to be when they came into existence as superbly engineered and controlled spaces for the pursuit of private profit.  And they were guaranteed by law to be unmarred by the distractions that were rare but still evident  in the noisier shopping districts of cities (much as speech codes and PC keep the distractions of passionate conflicts between the young away from the university).  And one has to admit that an indoor market is pleasant, allowing one to go store to store mid-winter without having to button up one's coat.  And there are never too few cars when one is out for a walk.

But I had always found these places to be the worst kind of American nice, i.e., places were real life and, by all appearances, real people never appeared.  Expected behavior was akin to a slightly animated mannikin.  That was never entirely successful, but shopping in one of them was akin to being a guest on the set of a movie production.  You kept expecting a man with a bullhorn (whispering, of course), telling you to keep quiet; keep moving; keep shopping; have an ice cream; don't disturb the actors or the crew; and never presume to be in a movie in which you are a player.  Passivity, except for the acts of observation and of shopping related to it, was the rule.

But here I was, in the same kind of place -- one can't avoid them with the vanishing of the old kind of store -- and it was familiar, even vital.  And, instead of feeling like an alien allowed a few hours of heavily guarded shopping at a Mimbari market, I felt as though I'd walked into the Greenwich Village of my youth.  Open faces, open mouths, conversation, argument -- it was as if an old, small downtown had been reinvented, replete with gossip, discussion and political disputes.  But there was a difference, at first a very disturbing one.  For you see, not one of the talkers spoke to anyone present.  And for a moment, it seemed as if each conversant spoke only to himself.  Had I wandered into a special mall for the neurotic? Had they become a new interest group, some new little nation with its own rights, and with  affirmative action for the disabilities determined as its own by an unseen central authority?   Or, drawing from conversations with a psychologist, had the enforced silences of the mall distressed people so much over the years that, desperate to the point of madness, they were acting out by talking noisily to themselves?  Or had I missed something altogether?  Perhaps this was a new episode of Twilight Zone.

No, I was wrong.  All my speculations were pointless.  For the secret was as plain as what they clutched to their ears.  Each had a cell phone.  And the new forum they had invented was not amongst themselves, but in a community whose only connections and existence were defined via radio waves.  Was this new?

Of course not.  It began with the cell phone's predecessor, a perfect technological intervention in the growing alienation in and sheer size of industrial cities.  With people working on assembly lines and offices, and isolated from one another by neighborhoods (or even one apartment from another), the original  telephone offered a technological fix, and probably without the inventor being conscious of just what he was solving.  The swift expansion of telephone networks -- it's incredible how fast they came to be standard equipment in houses in offices -- can only be thought of as a semi-automatic response to the human need to interact, not only for solace and pleasure but for survival.  Remembering the silences of suburban life in the 1950's and 1960's, it was the telephone that allowed my mother, in particular, to be a part of the world.  And it has only expanded exponentially with the development of cell phones, just as correspondence has with the Internet and e-mail.  In Florence, from which I just returned, everybody had a cell phone, as they do in California.  Conversation in cafe added a new dimension, people talking on the cell, then to someone else at the table, then to the cell, then passing the cell to someone else...a table of six expanded to one of twenty.   This is not say that I wouldn't prefer to sit with a group in an outdoor cafe in a beautiful downtown square, but where can you find that today?

What this has to do with poetry I don't know.  Perhaps interaction is the key word.  The Expansive movement's founders talked a lot about developing an audience, and what's an audience but people interacting with each other: poet to audience; audience to poet; audience to audience?  It's not always about money.  In fact, moneymaking transactions may only be a small part of audiences and marketplaces.  Most times, audiences don't come to buy, but to engage, not just to hear but to react and to ask.   When you write with that in mind, it may force you to think of someone other than yourself as a subject.

                               Arthur Mortensen

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