Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
Are You Famous? Touring America With Alaska’s Fiddling Poet
by Ken Waldman
Catalyst Book Press
225 pages, $15.00 USD, publication date August 2008, paperback, ISBN: 978-0-980-20810-8
Ken Waldman has previously released six poetry collections and seven music CDs. This new book is a departure into non-fiction writing. It is part memoir, part rumination on Waldman’s self-identification as Alaskan, and part road trip journal. Waldman has travelled around America for many years, delivering his hybrid poetry and Appalachian fiddle shows at any venue that will have him and pay adequately. For anyone who believes the career performer’s life is a glamorous one, this book is a sometimes shocking antidote.
Despite critical acclaim for both his poetry and music releases, this is a story of endless hardship. Waldman cuts corners at every turn in an effort to remain solvent, from sleeping in his car at truck stops, to couch surfing at friends’ houses. He takes any work he can find, from teaching at universities and schools, to doing poetry readings and musical performances. All the while he continues to write, compose and perform, using his mounting credit card debt to finance his publications and CDs and to get from one gig to the next. The administrative load of organising an endless tour without an agent is phenomenal and Waldman doesn’t skimp on the details; the lack of money to pay for health or dental care is a continual concern. Old cars are driven into the ground as Waldman pursues his art; old friends are relied upon to smooth the performer’s passage through America’s cities and towns. That there are so many of the latter in the author’s life testifies to his personal qualities and the artistic value of his work.
The reader can’t help liking the author for his honesty. He is unashamed to admit to occasional physical or mental breakdowns, and his efforts to maintain a positive attitude in the face of an indifferent public and the even more indifferent (and occasionally vicious) publishing and music industries is laudable. He also has a sense of humour about it all. Chapter 6 is titled ‘The Dark Side: Show-Biz’; Chapter 7, ‘The Darker Side: Publishing’. Having had some experience of national and international touring as an Australian performance poet and, latterly, singer and musician, it was easy for this reader to recognise the essential truth of Waldman’s characterisation of the artist’s life, and it is not a pretty picture. Only the most serious and committed need apply for this lifestyle that offers little security, an unreliable income, and, oftentimes, minimal to no respect.
I enjoyed this book, but was left with a deep sense of sadness and unease that an artist as accomplished as Waldman has been forced to live like this in order to continue on his artistic journey. Certainly most artists here in Australia would be unable to imagine doing what they do without the generous welfare safety net that supports so many of us between jobs. Mid-level American artists receive no such largesse; to continue requires massive commitment, often at the expense of their health and relationships.
If I have one criticism of Are You Famous , it is the lack of interesting anecdotes. The chapter ‘Bedrooms I Have Known’ is a case in point. The author lists people he has stayed with, who they are, what they do, what they offered in terms of support and accommodation, but somehow we never really get to know these people, the result being that the chapter reads like a verbal listing along the lines of ‘I went here, then I went there, I stayed with Mary, I stayed with Sally’. The problem is that without dialogue, descriptive detail about all these people, or reference to specific incidents the reader is forced to plough through pages and pages of relatively uninteresting facts and petty details, when what she’s really wanting to read is the fun stuff – the backstage banter, the gigs that worked or didn’t and why, the happy coincidences and musical highs, the spontaneous incidents that make life on the road interesting to both other artists and those who’ve never lived it. What she didn’t want to read was the mundane details – ‘I made a phone call, I applied for a credit card’. It is this barely relevant minutiae that detracted from the story and made the process of reading it somewhat laboursome.
I did very much enjoy most of the poem excerpts that opened each chapter, and now that I know the details of how Waldman lives feel inspired to track down his books and recordings. Now that I know about the life, I’m wanting to experience more of the art. In this sense Are You Famous was successful in piquing my interest. It’s to be hoped that Waldman finds the success he’s been chasing for so many years and has clearly worked so very hard to attain; it’s also to be hoped that he finds someone to spend the remainder of his life with who can appreciate his sensitive and artistic soul.
About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been writing, publishing and performing since the early 1980s. Her published poetry collections include: Conscious Razing: combustible poems (1986), Writers of the Storm: 5 East Coast Performance Poets (1993), Fit of Passion (1997), Girl With Green Hair (2000), and My Arthritic Heart (2006). Her poetry has been broadcast on television and radio in Australia and the USA, and published in literary journals. A past winner of poetry slams in St Kilda, Melbourne (1991) and Austin, Texas (1994), she has worked with several performance poetry outfits including ‘The Word Warriors’ (1990-1), ‘Stand-Up Poets’ (1992-4), ‘Ozpoets’ (USA tour 1994), and ‘Fit of Passion’ (1995-2000). Since 2006 has been singing and playing bush bass in the Brisbane-based alt-country-blues-roots trio ‘Cathouse Creek’.
An experienced factual writer, editor, reviewer and manuscript assessor, she has worked on many community arts projects and in 2004 was employed as a writer for Brisbane City Council’s ‘Creative Democracy: Homelessness’ Project.