It would be a mistake to call Mark Ari a novelist, a poet, a musician, or even a painter because, as he puts it, “It’s all one work.” Also, because everyone just calls him “Ari.”
This spring, his audio publishing project EAT Poems (eatwords.net) will present work by local poets Fred Dale and Tiffany Melanson, as it’s previously published Frances Driscoll, Liz Robbins, Mary Baron, Michelle Leavitt, Teri Youmans Grimm, yours truly, and a tribute to Jacksonville outsider poet Alan Justiss.
He calls EAT “a series of audio chapbooks focusing on Florida poets in and around Jacksonville. Mostly. I don’t let geography get in the way of good poems.”
Ari’s effect on Jacksonville’s literary scene is hard to overstate. The journal Fiction Fix, now in its 14th year, sprang from his University of North Florida creative writing classes, as did EAT Poems in 2007. And most of the writers who launched the art book/lit mag Perversion Magazine first met in Ari’s workshops.
So it’s ironic that Ari dropped out of high school back in Brooklyn. “I quit school to read,” he says.
Some of his favorite memories are of searching the displays of saddle-stitched independent literary “little magazines” in Greenwich Village’s indie St. Mark’s Bookshop.
It’s a thrill that, when he began teaching in Jacksonville in 2001, he discovered his students at UNF had never experienced. The next semester, Fiction Fix was born.
“Everything that’s ever moved me — a painting, poetry, music — I wanted to do that, too,” he says.
When Ari skipped school in Brooklyn, he’d head into the East Village to play music and the West Village to read poetry. He met writers like Seymour Krim and Jack Micheline. “Let the kid read,” they’d say. He later wrote for Irv Stettner’s literary journal Stroker, which published Henry Miller in his last years. (You can hear Ari’s 1984 Stroker interview of Living Theatre’s Julian Beck at arifiles.com.)
One guidance counselor made a point to show his respect for Ari’s intelligence, even read his poems, and helped him finish high school and enter college.
In the mid-’80s, Ari enrolled in the master of fine arts program at Brooklyn College, within walking distance from his apartment, when there was still only a handful of creative writing MFAs.
Sometime later in the same decade, Ari wandered through Europe, where he says he “spent a lot of time in places where I didn’t speak the language,” and eventually wound up in a small town in Turkey.
“Nobody spoke English, I certainly didn’t speak Turkish, but I made friends. We got drunk together, laughed together. When I came back, I remember walking down 69th Street in Brooklyn, and these kids were playing in an alley, and I listened to them. They were speaking pure Brooklyn, and I had never heard the music before.”
Today, tinkering with audio files for EAT, sometimes listening to one line repeatedly, Ari experiences Jacksonville writers in a profoundly intimate way.
“I’m not taking a stand on whether poetry is an aural art or a printed art, but there’s always music to it,” he says, “and the music often doesn’t get shared.”
Ari’s 1993 novel The Shoemaker’s Tale is a strange, reverently irreverent story based on 18th-century Jewish mystic the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism.
Ari grew up going to synagogue Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but says he studied Sufi, Taoist and Hindu writers “because I felt they had something, knew something, understood something that I wanted to get.”
He identifies as Jewish, because it’s his “framework,” just as he identifies as American and male, but keeps himself open to a point where many ways of being converge.
“You can take what Rumi says, what the Baal Shem Tov says, what Thomas Merton says, and juggle it, and you can’t tell whose mouth it came from. So these people must be onto something. What I don’t like about any religion is the idea that ‘This way is the only way.’ That’s really dangerous.”
Not so ironically, a religious background often prepares one well for art. So Ari says, “I think that being a poet, that way of being in the world, of communing with the world, is similar to a religious impulse.”
Ari’s ecumenical spiritual thinking may have prepared him also for his trek from Brooklyn to Jacksonville. In the mid-1990s, his wife Jan, now married 27 years, relocated to Jacksonville to take a job as fine arts director for the photography stock company SuperStock. All he’d previously known about Florida was “old folks and palm trees.”
Now he talks about Jacksonville’s emergent artistic and literary strength as that of a “post-geographic city.” When I repeat the phrase, he fine-tunes it as “post-18th-century-Industrial-Revolution city.”
Historically, cities have been cultural generators as a function of their concentration, and though places like Riverside and the three Beaches have earned strong artistic support, the Internet and social media are helping low-density towns like Jacksonville concentrate their strengths. Today, Jacksonville’s writers have greater means of connectedness than ever before.
Perhaps it’s best illustrated in a new application of the epigraph from the Baal Shem Tov that begins The Shoemaker’s Tale: “In whatever world a man is, it is as if the worlds were spread before him.”