Confessions of a Pen Name

Frank Messina - by W. Murphy
March 15, 2012

In October, 2001, I was on tour in Europe, performing a string of spoken-word gigs in the U.K. including the London International Poetry and Song Festival, aka "The Lips Festival." It was just six weeks after the attacks of 9/11 and nerves were frayed. Although mostly sympathetic people greeted us in London, there were enough detractors to raise some eyebrows. A few antagonists clamored at the Hackney Empire Theater the night of our first show. And at least one clandestine and sinister individual pushed the envelope beyond a mere heckle from the audience.

When I returned to the Lancaster Gate hotel, two investigators were waiting near the lobby entrance. Someone had made a clear and specific death threat to "the America poet, Messina," according to the tall one with a warm handshake and a cold smile. He said he was obligated to let me know. Apparently, someone was upset with poems that were perhaps too patriotic, or pro-American. "We've notified the US Embassy and relevant authorities," said the investigator. Then, they left.

Hmm, gee thanks.

And there it was: someone incensed by words enough to commit a crime. An unsettling experience, and perhaps more disturbing, I never heard back from authorities with a follow-up. But then again, poets and writers have a long history of being targeted for violence, intimidation and blackmail. Federico Garcia Lorca was killed by a fascist squad. And what about Salman Rushdie? Is he still in hiding? Well, I'm no Lorca and certainly no Rushdie.

However, being a poet means putting yourself out there, taking risks and being fearless. Even being the "Mets poet" has its dangers (thank you, Philly fans). After all, this is serious stuff. This is writing. This is our first amendment right in our beloved, imperfect and precious United States Constitution, something writers, and particularly journalists, arm themselves with in an attempt to grab a story and run with it, without fear.

A college English professor of mine told us a writer should make a fearless attempt at each genre: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, literary criticism, play writing and (gulp!) journalism.

So I wrote a few articles for an Italian newspaper, interviewing former New York governor Mario Cuomo and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It was fascinating work, making acquaintances with some amazing people. But as my career as a poet and performer became a primary focus, my attention toward journalism waned.

Now, after being the subject of many interviews over the years with the New York Times, BBC, PBS and the like, I thought about turning the tables. What if I became the interviewer? What if I attempted "investigative journalism," on my own time, just to see what I can come up with?

First, I began interviewing people I know: artists, poets, musicians, and art connoisseurs. Having a diverse range of acquaintances and friends, it wasn't hard to roll the tape. Soon, I amassed an enormous archive of interviews with some of the most intriguing minds of our time. But, a problem: these subjects all knew me. They were affable, accessible and willing to talk. They were too comfortable.

Frank Messina - by Christian Hansen, NY Times
My friend, who happens to have a cushy job at a New York publication (let's call him Dee), suggested I exercise my right to use a pen name, so as not to confuse my audience. "Pick a subject that's current," he said. They should be misunderstood, and perhaps even profound, then give them a voice. "Turn it inside out," Dee said. "Just keep it true."

So, there he was, "Michael Wilson," an innocent enough sounding name, picked from a character in a story I wrote in high school. A pen name, like Mark Twain is to Samuel Clemens. And how many pen names did Ben Franklin have? At least eight, according to the Smithsonian Institution. Not bad company, I thought.

A bit challenging, "Wilson" had to pick a relevant subject. "Current," said my New York journalist friend.

"How about the art world?" said my soul-mate, a profoundly talented writer herself. Why? Because if you're from New York, the art market has an enormous presence: money, power, social commentary, intrigue and scandal, a tightly bound world that unsettles, aggravates and provokes. An almost picture-perfect world that's ripe for writing.

But as "Wilson" branched out to people outside his field, the world became colder and less friendly. Doors were shut, emails ignored, phone calls avoided. People were paranoid, and disturbed by this invasion. Wow, what happened to agents, press people and sports figures who took my calls on the second ring? I was no longer Frank Messina, the poet. I was now "Michael Wilson." A nobody.

And for a moment, it was liberating.

"Wilson's" first bite came in the form of a very diligent and somewhat controversial art dealerthe founder of a website that, in part, offers a tagging system for art collectors and artists. She also pens articles that target major businesses in the art world that she believes are unscrupulous. And as a member of her site and a past customer of her products, I was able to get a closer look into her company and offer an "inside out" approach to my article. With almost two hours of telephone interview time with her, I had something to run with. Queries to corroborating sources became easier. Suddenly, some of the most powerful people in the art world were talking: dealers, lawyers, and at least one former FBI agenthours and hours of phone interviews all on my spare time.

Then, "Wilson's" first article was born.

And one of the subjects was not pleased. Before long, "Michael Wilson" was outed by a presumably tech-savvy individual. So, it should serve as no surprise when it was not "Wilson" who received a "Cease and Desist" letter from a subject of the article, but alas, Frank Messina. As such, I've decided to out myself as "Wilson", the author of these articles which I fully stand by as accurate and fair. If someone thinks not, they are welcome to send a list of requested corrections and I would gladly make changes. 

But so far, nothing. Well, except for a call from an anonymous (but since identified) man attempting to blackmail me, and threatening my well-being...again.

In the coming days and weeks, as time allows, I'll be publishing stories, both here on the blog and in the media including an interview with an eccentric and unlikely billionaire art collector, an artist who uses unusual materials in his paintings, and a woman who paints herself in public for charity. And of course, selected interviews with artistic legends from my personal archive.

Thanks for your time.

Frank Messina
poet, artist, journalist

ps: Media inquiries, "hate-mail", "love letters", fan-mail or blackmail can be sent to my representative:

Thomas C. Danziger, Esq.
Danziger, Danziger & Muro, LLP
405 Park Avenue, Suite 502
New York, NY 10022

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