IN WHICH TEEN ENVY FROM THE MID 80’S SET MY SUMMER AFLAME SENDING ME ON A PATH OF SELF DESTRUCTION… HOW HAIR CAN KILL… HOW SOMETIMES THE ONLY THING THAT CAN SAVE YOU IS A MUSIC VIDEO… HOW HAIRSTYLES CAN SEPARATE FAMILIES… HOW NEW NOMINEES FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME CAN BE TRIGGERING…IS ‘BLACK PEOPLE’ LISTENING TO ‘WHITE MUSIC’ A ‘THING?’

The summer I was due back in school as a sophomore, I decided to change the game and get a Jheri curl.

That particular summer, nothing was natural. All my cousins, all the bus drivers… everybody from the ministerial staff at church to the gangbangers smoking on the corner just outside, had these dripping wet afros infused with greasy vinyl bands of hair corkscrewing down to the scalp. The Jheri curl was everywhere. Named after its hairdresser-inventor, Jheri Redding, the hairstyle was a perm, a two part chemical relaxer that after softening hair would curl it. To top it off, my mom was a hairdresser who kept a steady stream of customers running through our kitchen to get permed up. (Aside: This cost her the skin on her fingers for a while. They would flake and swell resembling fat caterpillars until the fad, and her desire to engage the hours long process, faded)

Everyone I knew it seemed had swampy black hair that left slug-like trails from wherever the wearer sat. Everybody! The basketball players at the park, the young men and women in my kitchen … from the globally worshipped Michael Jackson to the scowling Ice Cube whose St. Ides and Kill at Will posters I kept on my wall that year. Everybody was dripping grease and cool as an R&B album cover.

And all I had was dry black naps full of dandruff. I couldn’t get laid if I was fresh mixed concrete. I had to get a Jheri curl. Right Now.

My mom was fine with this. She just didn’t want to do the work since she had real paying customers every weekend. So she asked cousin Susie whom she anointed and approved of, to come in one Saturday and work on me. All I was asked to do was not wash my hair or scratch it.

Which was the first and immediate problem. Did I mention I had dandruff? Is that still a thing? I remember combing my hair while bent over a newspaper watching the gray snowfall pile up. I had acne, sure, but it wasn’t as bad as my wickedly dry scalp, for which pomades and Head and Shoulders barely helped. The afternoon I was to get my hair done, I went down to Pay N’ Save and bought a box of relaxer. My head felt as dry as if it could crumble and blow away in a steady wind, like the leftover from a campfire. Not to mention how it itched. But nonetheless!! I was undaunted! I was finally going to be cool and get straight A’s in pussy all that next year!

So for the first time, I entered my own kitchen sanctuary (which I usually avoided) as a customer! While my mom worked on one old lady, then another, and maybe one after that… Susie began pouring chemicals through my hair, soaking my head in something…

Something akin to fire. Something like agent orange. My entire head burned. The slow, smoldering sensation made my skin feel as if were made of burning embers moving in waves. I closed my eyes to keep tears from dropping. However dry my scalp was, the chemicals were doing the exact opposite of helping. I squeezed my hands, digging my fingers into my thigh. The ladies came in and left and everybody was admiring and curious and smiled while I suffered and gritted my teeth and did everything except scream stop. It took the bulk of the afternoon for Susie to finish.

And when I was free, my hair was placed in rollers and the entire thing covered in plastic. I had just had surgery. My mom gave me her prescription Tylenol’s, thanked and paid Susie, and I went back to my room to recover.

I burned, I hurt. My entire head smoldered and ached. I don’t remember the rest of that night. Did I eat anything beyond soup and codeine? Could I have chewed? All I remember was sitting up in bed with my head bandaged in plastic while searching for some comfort and solace in television.

I turned to Channel 26 which on weekends showed an hour of music videos hosted by a local radio DJ. I sat staring coolly at the television. Pain gradually eased.

And then– the DJ announced the next music video.

A song called Wuthering Heights, he said. By Kate Bush, he said.

Fade up on a woman in double image, rising from an arc of rainbow light. A piano begins like misting rain, as if its being gently tickled as opposed to played. The woman on screen wears a white dress, not as a ghost or angel even but more like a muse, a low end goddess who shyly demurs too much fuss or attention. Her hair is long and dark, hanging over her shoulders. She mimes, she gestures before a black background. Unlike the other videos I’d seen, this is without groupies, dancers, a band, or a set. The director doesn’t even mix crazy colors into the unused background. Its just her dancing alone, video effects echoing her movements so that her body smears across the screen and she appears to dance duet with herself. This video cost less than $20 to make and I was riveted.

It was her voice, mostly. Her voice froze me in place, stopped time. Her voice is tip-toe high and tinny, an unreachable bird drifting and sliding between thermals. Her vocal dips and moves, dancing as she dances, gesturing as she gestures drawing out words and phrases, sending her voice up cheerily then back down to a kind of longing wistfulness. The song is dramatic and sweet and busy. The song sounds so ornate and complicated– like the show stopper for some Broadway musical. The bridge, its me, Kathy, I’ve come home and I’m so cold– let me in your window, Heathcliff— is desperate and mournful and full of longing. Every lonesome twitch I’d ever felt is articulated in her voice, with that line.

It was hypnotic and the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. This wasn’t the same cheese from the 70’s songs I’d give an ear to. This wasn’t Melissa Manchester or Debbie Boone. This was someone who took a wholly different approach to songwriting than I’d experienced. It sounded mature and classical. I’d be asked to read Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for school maybe two years later, but I’d never finish it. I made it far as the hounds and gave up, dropping my first high school English class out of bitterness towards a teacher I loathed. But I didn’t need that book. I preferred Kate Bush summarizing the novel leaving me the image of a woman waiting for her lover and dancing until he responds.

The song, her voice, saved me. Healed me. It was a balm to my ear and heart and I fell immediately in love and passed out for sleep.

That next morning, I woke up, removed my plastic headwrap, unhooked the curlers, looked at my new hair, and cried. It was horrible. More specific, it wasn’t Me. I no longer recognized myself when I looked in the mirror– not that I was all that excited beforehand, but now, with this, it was All Bad.

My mother, calmly: If you want to keep your hair from falling out, go massage some mayonnaise in your hair and wait a few minutes before shampooing it out.

By the time Susie arrived to see her work from the previous afternoon, I was already combing my freshly shampooed hair out. That curl didn’t make a full 12 hours. She stopped talking to me. I mean, she was paid… but for a long while after she would still look at me and sneer.

So: I went to school that next day, Monday, with a very soft and kinda curly Afro. My scalp, of what I could see of it, looked burned in patches, but it was alright. I would still have dandruff for a while, but it eventually eased up.

I remained a virgin. A nappy virgin at that.

(Well, not nappy– the chemicals completely changed the quality of my hair for years, softening it, leaving it wavy)

And I became a very committed Kate Bush fan. A couple of years later she’d release The Whole Story, her greatest hits compilation with a new vocal on Wuthering Heights, her voice having matured and come down an octave or two, but the song still offered a huge, cinematic sweep of sound. More years later and I found her box set of all her albums in a local record shop as an import from Japan and paid $200 without complaining.

I did not go to England for her month-long residency in 2014 at the Hammersmith Apollo. The wait for any video footage (none) or her eventual live album was agonizing.

She’s not an artist I can easily pass on to my friends. She’s not soulful. She’s not funky. She’s a dancer, certainly, but doesn’t care what a dance remix is. I wish she’d play more with unique sounds and different producers, and come up on more experimental dance tracks like this. But she’s a reserved, proper Englishwoman who’d sooner work with Chopin than Pharrell. Sooner drink tea than go Unplugged. She recorded with Prince, at least, so there’s that. And that live album is a stunner.

And all that is to say: when I heard Kate was nominated for this years class in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, over every other alum and nominee over the years, Prince, Tupac, Radiohead or Name Somebody, I realized I will go to Ohio to visit the museum there. After what she’s done for my spirit, I feel as if I owe her.

My friend and I met as if on cue at the convergence of the taco trucks. He attends Fridays at the Oakland Museum regularly on his way home from work and agreed to meet when I told him about the poetry reading. We made a brief lap through the modest community of neighbors here at evening’s picnic, on the city’s first cool Friday night. I told him finally, “I went through therapy recently. And the doctor pointed out to me I have social anxiety.”

My unsurprised friend: Well, yeah. I see that totally. You don’t mingle. He said. His mention of the word mingle chilled me. I barely looked up at the tiered residents of Oakland munching on international food while hip hop played from the DJ booth and people danced with children.

He wanted to eat and I couldn’t. I wanted to read first and get it over with. We walked around again but nothing screamed out to either of us. The ice cream taco truck was doing zero business and looked dark. Then, we ran into Tongo, the main feature for the night, walking up the street carrying books to sell: “Have you heard the good news,” he said. My friend knew his name very well by then and was there to hear him do his thing live. We all walked towards the amphitheater, a small stage loaded with a drum set and mics. We greeted the producer for the evening and met the third poet, a woman neither of us knew who was performing with us. She came armed with a cadre of friends who stood in a circle across the courtyard.

It relived me to be asked to go first. Being first is a kind of thankless warm up — a luring of the audience away from the music and conversation and asking them for a different mindset. Didn’t the producer say this was a kind of experiment, a first time of using poetry here and doing so in association with a forthcoming exhibit? Most audiences click in with attention by the second speaker. I mounted the stage.

The exhibit we were loosely connected to was Question Bridge, and I thought to bring poems written from meaningful, personal questions and their hard answers. No matter what, the 10 minute collection of poems I chose, were the only poems that felt right and I wanted to do them. They were poems about and around my father. They were personal.

And reading them in that space made me feel unexpectedly raw and exposed. At first, the concrete courtyard at the foot of the stage was busy with dancers, mostly guardians and their children. When the music stopped, some of the children remained, looking confused from the sudden stop or to just stare at the activity and people. Somehow, I couldn’t look past the kids into the audience, tiered stairs full of people sitting, eating, dating, and — staring at me. I felt as if I were interrupting something. I felt self-conscious as all the people here had been asked to cease what they were doing and listen.

And what did I give them? A poem about racism and rights. Conversations about my dead father… Whom I suddenly began missing what with the children at my feet and women with babies tethered to their backs. Mid-reading, I fell into a deep, sticky loneliness. I looked up at the woman who was reading second, standing with her friends, watching me solemnly. I gazed quickly up at the audience, mostly seeing bright white containers. I relaxed and read the poems. Get to the end, I thought.

But from stage I felt nervous as if I’d resurrected my father through language. I felt awkward: I shouldn’t have read such serious work while people are here having a good time. I was embarrassed as if I’d just opened my shirt and flashed my heart, to blank faces staring back. I ended, climbed down from the stage, and left quickly. The friend I met, I ghosted, leaving him behind somewhere in the audience. I couldn’t say goodbye. He was going to stay for the remainder of the show, I couldn’t. I didn’t want people to see me. I wanted to turn invisible. I disappeared, climbing the backstairs and exiting at the farthest end of the museum towards the last taco trucks. I kept my head down and almost got away until strangers stopped me. Three people, including a woman swaddling a baby. They asked if I was just on stage. I said yes, guiltily. They thanked me, I acknowledged the baby, smiled, then ran to the bus stop.

The previous public reading before this, in similar circumstances, was one I looked forward to. White Noise – Black Masks was an exhibit at the UC Berkeley Museum, curated by a longtime friend, Marvin White. Five poets read standing in a circle of speakers on the floor emitting a white noise that, during the reading, gets progressively louder drowning out or erasing the poets work and voice while asking the audience to grasp meaning for themselves.

The weirdness of that reading — the tension between artist, voice, and audience, was invigorating in ways I’m still processing. A new intimacy emerged with my effort to be heard over the white noise and the audiences efforts to hear me or let it go. One poet ended the evening in a way whose memory I will take to my grave. How she demanded to be heard! –physically– while tugging emotionally at the audience… During the Question/Answer segment, the white noise continued so questions were partially obliterated and their answers may not have matched.

The event made me consider all my years as a poet: Where was my voice in the midst of the white noise in my head and what was it trying to tell me? It was okay for me to lose my voice in context of that night, in practice of art. It was a gamesman-like challenge. There is always with poetry a desire to cut through the noise in the minds of the audience, or reader. Poetry aims to gently, lovingly, offer a unique perspective or understanding of life and experience. It is the flower that sprouts from the ground at a crime scene. It aims to underscore what beauty gets lost in our regular failure to pay attention to the world.

But what of my own personal noise and issues? In sharing poetry there is a giving of the artists self that applause does not always compensate or satiate. For whatever I once expected, I was fine with just being heard. It was good therapy for me to be present and observant and to write through my experience, however dispiriting it was. But there remains the hole or wound from which any work was originally excavated. The trick is to not confuse your self with the wound or not comfortably identify as a victim. Victimhood is seductive and deadly. You are not your story but rather the vessel through which stories fall and are collected. Draw from those stories to create work and then ruthlessly let them go or risk being drowned by the weight.

(SPOILER: I have not let everything go. I still carry residual weight. I flounder, splash water, but am still afloat)

Thus all I want is to be heard. So much of my life feels meaningless– having no family, no place to call home or have my emotional battery recharged. There is no place, beyond my quiet apartment, where I feel safe and wanted. I emerge to share poems with the world and all I want is to be held in attention. If no arms are available, then I wish to be held with eyes and hearts. Its difficult in some instances to truly feel connection with a room– the distraction of a noisy bar, the competition of the outdoors. My body stands reading the work, while my mind wishes I were at a table with a lover, happily ignoring the background noise and navel gazing cries of poets.

But its not the rooms responsibility to connect, its mine. Its my responsibility to befriend the entire space, even and especially as every square inch of my body wants to run and hide. That conflict, that push pull, is agony. It feels counter-intuitive to push through fear and find love. Love is all I’ve wanted and fear is all I’ve had.

For example, Saturday night, after ghosting the museum, I was to appear on Pirate Radio in San Francisco with a couple of other artists. But there was a huge misunderstanding I won’t untangle here. Just to say: the event was cancelled and the main feature invited us to the bar across the street and consolation beers since we were kicked out of the radio station due to scheduling problems.

I sat in a circle of a dozen people in a comfortable bar. After apologies, drinks were passed out, mostly beers and tonic waters. And we settled into a sharing circle, gathering closer to hear over the room noise, the echoing conversations and jukebox.

The people, mostly women, were beautiful, kind, warm, accepting. I was desperate to be out of there. Since I didn’t have to ‘work’, behind the anonymity of the mic, then I felt like I was wasting my time. I was in a hurry to get back to my aloneness. I didn’t want to read poems in the bar, even as it offered a guaranteed audience that wanted them. I wasn’t very sociable, either. I could barely hear and physically seemed to dissolve into the couch. This should have been the entire point of being a poet– to stop everything and present my heart on a table in a bar to be examined by strangers. To be in a bar! To be in supportive community! To make a reading happen when another was cancelled! I should have felt love and encouragement, I should have felt that this audience of young women is the entire purpose of the evening, a gift offered by the universe. The radio was never meant to play a part of the evening– THIS was the evening, THIS was the gathering to be part of.

But I felt so alone in that circle. So uncomfortable and elsewhere. Despite the crowd, there was just me and the explosive white noise in my head, drowning out my own prayers for change, for love, for acceptance, for a different paradigm. A white noise so loud, I couldn’t hear or see what surrounded me and smiled: Love bursts in great abundance all around. Once you stop gazing at your pain, you can see it.


 

Seizure: being grabbed and tossed to the ground.  In an instant, I became a bucking horse, forgiven everything except this moment. In exchange for a mouthful of blackened bacon sweating grease, here is a chaser of carpet and the hail of a table’s debris.  It is unusual, to say the least, to awaken face down on a  carpet, having been mounted by electrical shocks and rendered, pardon me, dumb and empty and useless.  A man with a need for sugar and grease is of no use to anyone except the doctor or the mortician.  My morning trip to Farmer’s market cost me a leg on the coffee table that my legs violent thrashing kicked off.  The table showered me with a coffee mug, an ashtray, my laptop, half bottle of lemon water, a nail file.  The tremors stopped even as my head continued spinning and I got up off the floor disoriented like I’d had a years’ worth of sleep in a handful of seconds.  I surveyed my body from head to toe — what the hell am I doing here / what exactly just happened.  I got up from the floor, surprised by the sudden newness of everything.  I took aspirin, then unplugged the power strip from the wall seeing how the desk lamp had broken its neck and all bottles of liquid had spilled into a wet outline haloed around me.  After dropping the aspirin, I needed to lay down again immediately.  I couldn’t make the couch and chose the closest floor.  Have you ever been confused by your own body?  I was confused by more than that.  I looked across the terrain of the carpet.  The broken table, the broken lamp, the scattered ephemera  and the dumb luck of not electrocuting myself, at least.

And then, I looked up at the silent black phone.  Perhaps you would have called any number of friends or family or even an ambulance.  I had no friends or family and the ambulance was a rubber banded roll of money chocked deep down in my throat I couldn’t get up.  In truth, there is a hospital four blocks from my building… but, but, but.  I looked at my phone, useful to me now as a toaster might be, and felt deeply sad.  Right then, I felt sorry for myself.  And I thought back to earlier that morning when I’d gone to the farmer’s market where I bought eggs and the aforementioned bacon which probably led to this absurd afternoons non-delight.  Smirk now as I tell you I walked past a man shoving kale and arugula into a plastic bag and kept walking.  I walked past another man standing in the middle of the flowing wave of shoppers.  He was speaking so loudly into his cell phone it seemed like a performance.  I thought I recognized him … and did.  He is my biological brother.  And as if this might explain anything, I walked past him while he stood blindly screaming: “What?? Should I give up my freedom to do what I…” and I walked past him, unnoticed and stopped listening after losing count of all the “I’s” shoved into his sentence.  He never saw me, unable to see anything except his own issues.  How to say: we are better as strangers than brothers?  More familiar to one another in thought than face to face.  As I walked past, I realized there were no memories I wanted to volley back and forth.  There was nothing I wanted to catch up with.  We emerged from the same biological muck, brothers in the dictionary yet strangers and useless otherwise.  He had sons, a daughter, an ex-wife, plenty.  He wasn’t adopted.  He was wanted.  Somehow it was just me who didn’t match the set.  It was me to whom my “birth mother” said, “lets agree to disagree”, before handing me off like a casserole.  I walked past him and bought cookies at a booth two tables down.  I preferred sugar and the kind smile of a stranger vending baked goods and fresh pasta.

I didn’t think of my biological brother again until later that afternoon when I found myself on the floor, table broken, dishes scattered across the floor in an awful tableau.   From my vantage point, I couldn’t think of a single name to call.  The only thing I thought of was him shouting into his phone and with that, my body flattened against the rug.  Depending upon him, I’d be good as dead.  The spilled items agitated me.  I pushed myself up, stumbled to the couch and waited.  I lay on my back and listened to my body.  Adrenaline is gasoline burning clean beneath my topsoil of skin.  My heart thumped even down to my fingertips.  I was glad to feel anything.  I spoke to myself, not a prayer, but how you’d test a microphone, and I sounded okay.  I flexed my toes.  Whenever a wave of thought whitecapped I breathed slowly until it smoothed out.  I watched the adrenaline burn and turn from red to orange to blue and then ease.  The day outside was so pretty and so bright and so useless.  I reached for my phone to make a doctor’s appointment then realized the next open slot was more than a week later.  Once I could move comfortably, I called medical services to expedite my appointment.  The woman-operator on the phone cheerily asked What Was Wrong.  I didn’t want to talk to her, I wanted to speak with my doctor.  She asked: It isn’t sexual is it? I used the word Seizure then the word Stroke and then a nurse was connected on the line and quietly urged me to call emergency.  Turns out there is a hospital but four blocks from my front door.  She talked me down from even trying to walk it, alone, especially before knowing what was wrong or whether it would happen again.  She said my appointment couldn’t be changed.  I hung up the phone and stared at the wall, breathing.

Egon: Don’t cross the streams.
Peter: Why?
Egon: It would be bad.
Peter: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean “bad”?
Egon: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

***
During workshop week, I sat with different poets and talked/shared about our writing and performing lives and philosophies. Someone asked about my writing and poetry life and I asked them theirs. Over the days, it occurred to me how many of the writers here didn’t perform or read their work very often in public. Meaning, they rarely or never went to a café or performance space and read aloud anything they’d been writing. I considered it part of my practice. For many of them, it was uncommon.

That’s not 100% true. A couple of the people there were very familiar with public readings. But others, for example one or two of those leading the weeks’ workshops, had no idea how to use or approach a microphone.

It struck me odd if only because I discovered poetry In Public — in this bookstore, or in that café. ‘Spoken word’ is synonymous with ‘poetry’, right? And after years of familiarity, once I heard Gwendolyn Brooks read ‘We Real Cool’ aloud at a sold out event at UC Berkeley did I realize that was the first time I’d ever heard the poem at all.

If music is created for instruments, isn’t poetry created for voice? If lyrics are made to be sung, isn’t poetry made to be spoken? If a theatrical monologue belongs to a play, shouldn’t a poem belong to the voice as a random, anywhere recitation?

At the end of dinner on the final day of workshop week, all the participants gathered together and volunteers were asked to recite a poem they didn’t write from memory. It was a way of bringing the classics, the published, the famous and infamous, the authors from different cultures and languages into our current conversation and gathering, grounding us as would a prayer.

But earlier in the week, seated at the foot of a gorgeous mountain and the sun quietly setting behind it, when I asked a woman if she’d ever gone to any open mic events or read aloud, she shook her head, unsure if events like that even occurred in her home city.

I had no idea what to say to her.

***

I went to an event at a café in Berkeley Friday night, in support of my friend, a writer and storyteller and who herself has never attended any kind of workshop and, now in her 70’s, is ‘starting to consider’ signing up for one since I’d been going on about it.

It brings me little joy to be at a poetry reading on a weekend night, but since she’d been so supportive of me in the past, I felt socially obligated. We walked in and the place was packed wall to wall with people. My friend, S, came over to me and asked if I’d help him do a quick skit for his part of the open. I loved him and without thinking quickly agreed.

“All you have to do,” he directed, “is go: Oh really, and then what happened.”

He signed up first, of course, and instead of his name, signed up as a corporation of some kind. Instead of doing any poetry, he decided to just play– as he’s apt to do– to throw away any poetry and vibe his way through a absurd story or joke he’d made up.

Once the host stood and got the room to quiet, he had me stand with him at the side of the room, then grabbed my wrist pulling me up to the front of the room with him. Like a bad Abbott and Costello routine, we went to it. He immediately began stammering and spitting about being in a horror workshop with a bunch of, in his impression, slow witted, condescending old people. And in his story/sketch, a child was asked to come speak to the workshop group and of course in the story provided the best poem of the night.

The audience applauded, and we sat down as if nothing had happened, allowing the rest of the night to unfold quietly and without further incident. I sat with him. He’d taken out a mini notebook and wrote while the first feature began, giving his manic, impulsive OCD a point of focus to sit still. I took out an equally small notebook and also wrote, mostly to complain about what I was hearing.

I thought about S during my week in the mountains, mostly how much he’d like the area and hate how we were using it. That his OCD and distractions would tickle his impatience too often to even sit and have a reasonable conversation about writing — much less take time to read anyone else’s work. And though he’d love the outdoors and nature, he’d never stay with the group on any hikes or lectures. He’s his own man, uncontrollable, impatient, distracted, impulsive, manic. And hates even the idea of workshops and what he perceives them to be about.

And then I thought: how sweetly he used me to shit on whatever he thought was going on in the mountain, to illustrate how little he cared or respected anything he assumed was happening during my week, and to basically toss his arm around me and flip off the experience I’d just had, while smiling broadly.

And we sat together for a while during the reading, but he had to run off for work mid-way through and vanished. This just before the friend I came with read. I stayed and listened until the end of the night.

I don’t remember anything I heard. My friend who was featured that night and I arrived minutes before the reading began. I did not sign my name on the open mic sheet. Later, when the host announced the last reader on the open mic for the night, the woman I came with turned and stared at me. I didn’t return her gaze. Reading/sharing wasn’t immediately essential. I was there for her.

As the room began dispersing, I chatted with someone whom I’d known for years. I made the mistake of mentioning to her about my week up in the mountains and asked if she’d ever done anything like that and she immediately scoffed. Read: laughed in my face.

Maybe you don’t need it if you get access to the cabin, I said referring to the one she just mentioned in her poetry.

Oh, its run down, she said, dismissively. The structure I’d sketched in my mind immediately fell apart, splintering and sagging as she spoke.

She laughed, hard, over even the idea of a poetry workshop. She’d heard of it, she’d
“submitted something once before, years ago…” but never applied again and she was now 70 so why bother. She knew ____ about Galway Kinnell and _____ about Sharon Olds and what else did she need to know? I felt foolish for bringing it up and left it alone. But as I was trying to make my way to the door, my ride trailing far behind me soaking up the appreciation for her set, I stopped to talk with someone at the entrance whom I hadn’t spoken with in a while. He seemed distant, shy, bewildered and talked about being/feeling stuck and not writing. Lacking anything new to say, I began ministering to him about the prospect of going somewhere if just to get out of town, out of his life, out of his head for a minute. To refresh himself and his work. He seemed to not know what language I was speaking.

I had nothing else to say to him. My ride approached and I leapt out of the room ahead of her.

***

I nearly thought my ride was going to ask what I thought of her or her work. I expected her to corner me into a review. She waved off anything I tried to say.

“I recorded it,” she said. “I’ll find out later…” I shut my mouth.

***

These are the two worlds I live between. Worlds that I thought were the same or similar but are obviously not. The rooms are full of poets that periodically share the same people, but they are not the same at all and barely have anything respectful to say to one another.

Years ago, before Poetry Slam even, back when I first began this journey through poetry, I would often sit in on conversations about Page versus Stage poets. Performance artists who sound great, but you just can’t read them. Standing alone in a room with just their work, the poems lose much of their electricity and appeal. S could be guilty of this. I tried reading his book, which is as stubborn a tome as he is a person, and find the book is exhaustingly unreadable and weirdly joyless. Hypnotic in its commitment, its a single poem at roughly 120 pages. Where’s the rest of his amazing poems I’ve heard him do over the years? Where’s the easy exhilaration had in listening to him? Perhaps I should try again, but there isn’t much of a hook to engage me and return with commitment beyond the fact: I know him!

In turn, there are Page poets– who write lovely work but who cannot (or should not) read their own material, and often stamp out any power or joy found in their poems simply in the droll way they read them– reading into their chest dispassionately, as if they held their breath. One of the sweetest, warmest writers I met at workshop is an awful reader of their own work. This reminds me how years ago there was a brother who attended one now-defunct series in S.F. who always used to sign up early and was one of the greatest poets, writers I’ve ever heard. He was someone I still think of and consider, without hyperbole, a genius. He would place his lips directly on the mic and whisper his work, which was deadly personal and close– about death, drugs, relationships, family, abuse. The room would hold its breath and physically lean towards him, listening. He didn’t need to emote. We, knowing he was good enough and worth it, went towards him.

I, naturally, aim for the middle ground. I want to sound good, and I want the poems to work without me. I want anyone to pick up my work and find something of value in it, something to hook themselves with. I also enjoy reading aloud and finding the audience wanting to pay attention. Neither of these things is easy or come naturally. But seems to me an obvious lesson that emerges between practicing and performing. Practicing your craft (writing) is about strengthening your work on the microscopic line level, (which means publishing). Practicing your craft (reciting/reading) is necessary in order to hear what gets received, what gets missed (which means performing, slamming if necessary). Being clear in what you’re communicating. There exists a middle ground between the two, and of course its unmarked. But I think its worth finding and settling in. There’s valuable audiences awaiting both sides of the fence.

But what if improving and getting better at what you do is not the point? What if all you know is all you need to know?

Its been years since I last went to a writer’s retreat. Squaw Valley came at just the right time offering me a healing I’d been long in need of. There’s a unique community offered by artists gathered together all struggling to write the next thing and to keep working. That creative energy feeds me like little else.

More than 70 people from all over the country gathered for a week in the mountains, specifically the Olympic Village at Squaw Valley, to write poems. I wrote, though much of my non-writing free time was spent in bed sneezing and blowing my nose so often I quickly filled a Trader Joe’s shopping bag with tissue. I nearly thought I’d come home early what with not being certain I could stand a whole week with a sinus infection. But turns out one of the poets amongst us was a doctor who generously wrote a prescription that helped me.

My head opened off and on several times, getting me through daily poetry workshops and allowing for a couple of nature hikes with Man of Great Knowledge, Will Richardson. The hikes I looked forward to (they weren’t extensive, but were quite rich in detail and information) if only to broaden my vocabulary, offer me different language with which to see the forested world beyond just saying “things” are “pretty”.

Most nights though, I barely slept. I struggled to breathe and sat up watching footage of hurricanes and tornados on late night Weather Channel specials. Being congested late night while watching a cruise ship pummeled by mountain sized ocean waves is a uniquely appropriate gift. One night while I was up, the area was rattled by an earthquake.

After I began getting some sleep, being so far up in the mountains, some 6000 ft. above sea level, my dreams became vivid and popped with color and strangeness. I saw my grandfather again, only in worker’s overalls and on crutches. I came up behind him in a supermarket and he turned to me and immediately took out a egg sized peppermint ball he’d been eating and tried to feed it to me like a bird. I refused; even in my dream it was kinda gross. But he was insistent and otherwise mute and I still politely refused and moved away from him over to frozen foods.

While still quite congested, one night I drifted into a dream where I stood beneath a bridge waist deep in water. Across from me, the city I saw was dark and the sky inflamed with war. I watched a huge explosive be dropped blocks away and the sky began filling with rolling, greasy black clouds. I knew the clouds were poisonous and I was alone. I also knew I couldn’t swim and was uncomfortable in water, but the only way to save myself was to plunge my face into it. As the black cloud raced towards me, I went under only to wake up gasping.

Later in the week, I realized all my dreams take place in the streets of an alternate Oakland, the city where I was born, that remained in permanent twilight. One long dream meandered from beneath a freeway overpass where I rode a bucket downhill in order to escape a group of young thugs. In that dream I seemed to run errands for the owner of a store of some kind, me racing from one part of town to another and back, from one Victorian house to a modest store front, from making deliveries and picking up packages. The dream starred friends I barely speak with any longer and was flavored by mild I’m Running Late panic. Rooms were populated with rare antiques and toys, live music played on platforms in the middle of intersections. I dreamed in color. My dream shot with Steadicam consciousness.

In spite of my annoying illness, the week was spectacular and I was surrounded by great people, strong artists and even by many of the poems that emerged. I failed to realize how special the week was until I’d come back to Oakland in time to do a reading at a local café. The audience was mostly of listless seniors. At one point, someone’s cane slapped the floor loud as a gun shot. Even that struggled to wake me. I found myself reading new work then looking up at the room and not knowing what to think of the faces staring back at me.

My friend arrived late in the reading and long after my set was over and since she was going to drive me home, I decided as a thank you to read her all the new poems that came out during my workshop week. Afterwards, since she’s an Aries, she went through her glove-compartment poetry and handed me one to read aloud back to her. Its exhausting listening to my own voice all night. How long had I been talking? I couldn’t pray hard enough for her to drive me home quickly just so I could finally shut my mouth.

The nice folks at Two Hawks Quarterly have published my story Madagascar, my first attempt this year to send out something else besides Poetry. (Not That There’s Anything Wrong With Poetry). I sent it out on a lark just to gauge what would happen– what happened next was a huge surprise to me. It was encouraging at least. I’m digging like a badger through old journals for more salvageable stories. Hope you enjoy.

Last night I itched to write something and had nothing to say. I’d fallen behind, not writing much of anything last month, set aside usually for National Poetry Writing. What I did do though, was rescue and edit work I’d paused on. Word Camera is a webpage that converts photographs into text. I had three word camera documents on my computer based on three found photographs. Last night I opened them and began re-editing, re-assembling the text in collage form. Like William S. Burroughs Cut Up method, though not as random with multiple sources. It was more myself in conversation with old, found text. I combed through the blocks of computerized text, randomly broke lines, then changed nouns and verbs, cutting entire sections, moving things around, adding an original line beneath the computer’s line. I mailed all that stuff to myself this morning to print at work where I plan to do more shuffling and editing and conversing.

William S. Burroughs was one of my earliest inspirations, one of the first writers I respected because of his voice.

I became introduced to Burroughs sometime in the mid 80’s through performance artist Laurie Anderson. Bill had a cameo in her film Home of the Brave which, due to good reviews, I saw on the big screen in Berkeley at an Old Repertory House. (I probably saw it on a double bill with the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense) Her music was white girl funky– curious and fun to my ear. Burroughs popped up briefly on her album Mister Heartbreak, doing vocals on Sharkey’s Night.

Eventually, during my digs through cd stacks at Rasputin and Amoeba I discovered an album, Dead City Radio. Burroughs had a hung over mid-western drawl that rattled and purred through reading his weird sexual sci-fi work. His writing was fun and dangerous and twisted. Though I’ve owned Naked Lunch for years, eventually saw Cronenberg’s film adaptation and listened to readings, I can’t read it cover to cover nor, really, any of his work. It comforts me having his books around, in the way I’m comforted by James Joyce’s Ulysses on my shelf, equally admired and mostly unread (Kate Bush once helped me eventually revisit the final Molly Bloom chapter, as did a BBC dramatization where an actress skipped through that meandering monologue while mid-way memorably squatting over a chamber pot). What connects me to him, what interests and draws me, is his voice and the sleepy confidence with which he reads. It is effortless and conversational. He is no orator. He is a philosopher with, as my former classmate once said, “the voice of them old junkies”. His was a voice I wanted to share with people, as if it were a song I liked. His being queer (Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That) didn’t bother me: “(The Mugwumps) secrete an addicting fluid from their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolism.” I’ve never seen him photographed with, speak of, acknowledge, nor even take any photos with any artists or writers of color and I’m okay with having never heard or known his thoughts on race. But I still adored the way he constructed sentences and told stories. And his voice. His voice simmers. His manner, his spoken word tempo, paired equally nice with producer Hal Wilner’s NBC Orchestra needle drop samples on Dead City Radio as it did with crunchy electronic hip hop from the brothers behind The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy for the album Spare Ass Annie. Dub him via reggae, put a Kurt Cobain guitar solo beneath him, it all works.

What did I learn from him? How language can be a toy– a building block. A Lego. That, and the motor of voice. His voice made me better appreciate words, language. In reading for audiences or recordings, he was never nervously rushed or panicked to get out his work. He never sounded eager to please anybody– he let the work and images speak for themselves. Yet one could hear a sly pride in his reading of his often disturbed and challenging work. He read slowly hypnotizing audiences following his dream-imagery and surreal juxtapositions.

Burroughs was a superb reader. There are not many writers who do their own work justice. Dylan Thomas was certainly a master. Even Sylvia Plath’s stately manner in her recorded versions of Daddy or Lady Lazarus for example, she reads poems with the precision and form of a runway model. You can nearly hear her shoulders being pushed back and her chin lifted as she reads. She sounds like a 1950’s movie star, falling between Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwick. Burroughs in turn sounds as if he’s seated at a kitchen table haloed in smoke with an eternal shot of gold liquid within reach. He sounds sleepy, slouched, slightly aggravated and familiar with evil. A wicked grandfather who might slip you some extra rock candy if you place nice and pull your pants down.

I’ve rarely written or spoken of writers who’ve inspired me. Perhaps I’ll do more of these. But while working last night, I thought of Burroughs Cutting up blocks of text to get new fresh meanings and lines, or to cull weird word pairings and find new ways of saying things. He might have really dug that word camera page. It was greatly helpful to me last night while feeling anxious but stuck and uninspired, stoned and slightly drunk.

Follow up on more regarding Burroughs Cut Up Method here.