A Tribute to Jimmy Pitts.
To read editor Marc Smirnoff's column about Jimmy from our Southern Art & Architecture Issue, please click here.
When I first considered writing a tribute to Jimmy Pitts, I didn't think I'd be able to do it. Not because I didn't have anything to say, but because I had too much to say. Even attempting to describe the effect of the twenty years I knew him seemed as foolhardy as trying to summarize all seven volumes of THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE in a Twitter entry. The number and variety of thoughts, emotions, memories, and inspirations that have coursed through my confused mind are uncountable.
Jimmy and I clicked right away, and not just because we were both aspiring writers. To capture his personality is impossible, but I can say that he had an uncommon ease about him, but also an intense, almost frenetic, energy. These seem to be opposites, but in him they were somehow swirled together. He was lighthearted and funny and loved to laugh and play boyish pranks. (If you ever received a late-night call weirdly altered by a novelty voice modulator set to "Italian Robot," I can name the main suspect.) There were also his various aliases and personas, such as Cub Jim, boy reporter/amateur detective (think Encyclopedia Brown after two liters of Mountain Dew), and his gag jug-band, The Cudbottom Boys, which were something like The Darlings of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW if led by Frank Zappa. (The sound of Jimmy warbling, in an "ol' country geezer" voice, the maddeningly catchy ditty "Purty Red Quilt" will still gets stuck in my head if I let it.)
But he was also very serious about certain things. One of these was his friendships, his loyalties. Another was his unquenchable drive to write. He wrote poems, short stories, song lyrics, letters and postcards, one-liners, quotes (such as the name of this piece), titles, lists, much etc. He worked on several book-length projects, including a true-crime account, two memoirs, two novels, and an autobiography—perhaps the only one in literary history whose narrative began before the narrator's birth. (It was titled, with rare understatement, A FEW FACTS.)
His strength, however, was the short powerful burst; his talent was a quick summer thunderstorm, not a week-long blizzard. Poetry was the perfect outlet, and he excelled at it, honing and crafting his work tirelessly. He received rejections, and each stung, but his unflinching belief in The Work (the verb and the noun) kept him going. At times he doubted himself or a certain piece, but he never seemed to question that the well it all sprang from would fill back up the next day, if not the next hour. He may have been cursed/blessed with a unique condition you might call AADD—Artistic Attention Deficit Disorder—but I don't think he ever felt the first symptom of Writer's Block. He had too much to say.
He would not let anything or anyone stop him, even/especially himself; he would work and then go out on the town, appearing late among the rest of us supposed writers who'd wasted yet another evening talking up what we were gonna write if we ever found the time.
His work was published in many literary reviews, including POETRY, one of the most prestigious and discerning venues in the country. He was awarded a Literary Arts Fellowship for Poetry from the Mississippi Arts Commission in 2006, and in 2007, his first collection, THE WEATHER OF DREAMS, was published.
Jimmy found time not only for his writing but to be an all-around man of letters: He co-founded an alternative paper called THE WEEKLY PLANET, co-founded and served as poetry editor for the literary journal VOX, and was the poetry editor of The OA for ten years, attracting such talents as Charles Simic, Rodney Jones, and John Updike. Most recently he worked as the graphic designer for SALT ZINE, and was a frequent contributor to THE LOCAL VOICE.
This same energy and unique vision revealed itself in his work as an artist. I could no more identify why Jimmy's paintings are entirely original than I can why his writing is. All I know is that his creations have a character all their own. A painting Jimmy gave me hangs in a corner of our living room. It is a thickly rendered shape of a man standing with his arms by his sides, his face showing fear, surprise, and quizzical amusement all at the same time. It has a presence, a personality—so much so that I think of the painting not as "it" but as "he."
In recent years Jimmy turned his energies to music; the Jimmy Pitts Music Page on FaceBook has more than 2,700 fans, among them another fresh-faced kid from a small town who had a lot to say: Bob Dylan. Jimmy's songs can be heard on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and iLike. He had just completed his first album.
Did I mention he was also a gifted photographer? And amateur comic actor? (A skit called "Reeky," available on YouTube is funnier and more unhinged than plenty of skits I've seen on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.) Jimmy liked to joke (okay, half-joke) that he was a "Multimedia Superstar," and when you begin to list all the genres he explored, all the ones he excelled at, it's hard to argue the point.
I moved away from Oxford in 1997. One of the disadvantages of this was that I didn't get to spend time with Jimmy in person anymore, but one of the advantages was that we struck up a frenzied correspondence, accomplished almost entirely via postcards. (Again, perfect for his short vibrant bursts.) The weekend after we lost Jimmy I got out a box of "PittsCards" and was astounded first at the quantity: there were eighty-two, and this is not even all of them (further, he corresponded with many people). Rereading the cards, I realize that they are as close to a distillation of Jimmy as is possible. They are by turns cartoonish, eloquent, witty, friendly, warm, wry, ebullient, hyper, thoughtful, somber—sometimes several of these within the short space of one card, changes in tone and modulation that a jazz musician would admire. They almost always address, if only subtly, our friendship. I marvel at (and am humbled by) the encouragement, the faith in me, that he expressed. I treasure these cards not only as mementos, but as a way to sit down and hear his voice again. As if what he wrote wasn't enough, almost all of the cards are illustrated with wild, colorful drawings of various subjects: comical self-portraits, vampires, fireworks, animals, landscapes, eyes, American flags, abstract designs, and anything else his brain could come up with (which is to say, You name it).
I don't share Jimmy's talent for being succinct, but I hope I've given some sense of him as a person and as a creative force. I realize now I was wrong when I said that you couldn't summarize THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE: the plot is in the title. I was wrong, too, to say I couldn't summarize my thoughts and feelings about Jimmy Pitts:
I miss my true and gifted friend.
Art, videos, and music by Jimmy Pitts