Brno Expats Have Talent: Joe (US), walker and writer
We introduce a new article series: Brno Expats Have Talent!
While most public events have been put on hold for a long time and it seems that no one does much – there are no concerts, performances, happenings or exhibitions – the people who have art and creativity as part of their lives are still here.
A day job, a family, and generally the effort of maintaining some level of ‘normal life’ are probably the order of the day, but that doesn’t mean that their talent has been frozen too, or that it shouldn’t be known to the world around them, even if ‘invisible’ during these strange covid months.
Therefore, we decided to highlight those people who live among us here in Brno and feature an interesting creative side.
And, while we might not be able to see them live, we bring a small snippet of their art to you through a short video. In the coming months, we will publish interviews with people from various fields – musicians, creative artists, dancers, performers, designers. We hope you’ll enjoy this series! Feel free to drop us a line with your feedback or suggestions of people or fields.
JOE LENNON (US) – walker and writer
Watch a video made by Joe: “The Center of the Universe in Brno”
How long have you been practising your art / your activity? How was it visible in your home country or previous place of stay?
I guess I’ll consider my art/activity to be “walking and writing.” For me, those two things have always been connected. Almost everything I write is about a particular place, and I think the reason I started writing was to try to understand places, to feel connected to them, and to feel like I belonged there, if only for the length of a poem, or an essay – for as long as I could sustain a rhythm between a place and my words.
My family is typical of US families in that we moved around the country a few times for my dad’s career, and as an adult I moved around a lot too, for work and school. Walking was my way of exploring my new home, wherever it was. And out of those walks came images and words, which became poems or essays. While studying for my PhD in Denver, I realized I could formalize my walks a bit more, involve others, and turn them into art and writing projects. You can read about a longer walking project I did here.
Is it your main source of income or a hobby?
I wish I got paid to walk around and write! I’m happy, though, that for my paying job I get to help others become better writers. I teach at Masaryk University Language Centre, and this year my colleague Abigail Mokrá and I opened the Writing Lab, where students and faculty can come for one-on-one consultations on their writing. We also do online seminars about academic writing, which you can watch here.
How do you find living in Brno as an expat and artist? Is it easy to practise your art here? What obstacles did you face?
Maybe I decided to live in the Czech Republic because it’s such a great place for walking! A constant theme of my walks, and my writing about walks, in the US, was the difficulty of walking there. It’s not just that the distances are huge; it’s also that so much land is private property, gated or fenced off. I remember years ago trying to cross the city of St. Louis on foot; I had to scramble over two locked gates to avoid going miles out of my way. There’s nothing in the US even remotely similar to the network of walking paths we have here. And of course you’d never pass through someone’s open field in the US; you’d risk getting shot by the landowner. Most Americans don’t seem to realize how oppressive and insane that is. So, for a walker, the Czech Republic is paradise. And as far as the writing – well, all I need for that is a laptop and coffee.
I do miss a couple of things from the US, though. One is the community of writers which I had around me, and the opportunity to read and hear work from a wide range of authors in English. Yes, there are writers’ groups here, and Anne Johnson’s open-mic nights are a great venue for sharing creative work in English. But I miss going to regular public readings by friends and meeting visiting writers. I also miss having easy access to the latest and the best books in English. If you’re into contemporary poetry, or new fiction or non-fiction that aren’t huge bestsellers, you can’t really find those in Brno bookstores.
Where do you find inspiration? Did Brno/CR bring any new inspiration to your art? What/who was it?
I’ve always been drawn to peripheral places, places that seem to be neglected, unnoticed. Brno’s identity is based on it being the epitome of that type of place. Before we say anything positive about Brno, we first have to say, well, we’re not Prague, we’re not Vienna. But then in the next breath we’ll say how wonderful it is here! And if you look at Brno now, it’s a boom town – youthful, wealthy, and attractive to people from all over the world.
So there’s this weird tough love that Brno inspires, and that inspires the series of articles I’m doing for Brno Daily. I want to understand the mysterious forces that pull all the parts of Brno together, and that pull me and others to move here and be a part of it, even when that doesn’t seem to make sense. How does someone who grew up on the other side of the world end up in Brno? That’s probably a question a lot of Brno expats have. And we might respond with socially acceptable answers like “I followed career opportunities” or “I fell in love with someone here,” but that’s not the whole story. What history, and what culture, gave rise to those opportunities? And what personal quirks and longings opened us up to love across cultures? By trying to answer those questions for myself, maybe I’ll give other people words for articulating what makes Brno so intriguing to them too.
Do you cooperate with other expats or local Czechs in your activity?
Occasionally I’ll convince a friend to walk with me through Brno’s sexiest industrial wastelands, or to drink Starobrno with me at a sketchy neighborhood pub. And my girlfriend Radka said “Sure!” when I asked her to help me take a heavy collage-poem-sculpture-thing I’d constructed out of a glass tabletop and roll it halfway across the city.
But I want to collaborate more with other walkers and artists, and involve more people who live in the neighborhoods I’m writing about. When you’re walking with another person, they notice things you wouldn’t. So, if you live in any Brno neighborhood starting with the letter D or after, get in touch! Let’s walk.
How can you practise your art now, in the strange covid times?
I guess the best answers to that are in the last few Brno Daily articles. As I said in the latest one, on Černá Pole, “the streets themselves are still open.”
When I started the series, I was imagining more of a typical “tourist guide” type thing, where I’d suggest the best hole-in-the-wall pub in each neighborhood, the best restaurant, etc. And when the first wave hit, there was a moment when I wasn’t sure if I should continue the series. But I rewrote the article I had prepared and made it more about this urgent need to find new ways of appreciating the city. And I’ve continued with that theme.
Is there any other area in art that you’d like to explore? What are you looking for right now?
I’ve written about 5 Brno neighborhoods so far. That means I have 43 to go! So I’ve got more exploring to do.
Photo courtesy by Joe Lennon.