He called and asked months ago, and I mean months, for me to read at his venue– a bookstore in Fort Mason, San Francisco. I put it in my calendar and forgot until last Monday he called to remind me, then immediately apolgized for not being able to make it.
I got tickets to the game, he said.
So after work yesterday, instead of going home, I walked over a few blocks the a bus stop and headed to the Marina District.
Usually, a few days before a reading I’ll sift through my poems and figure out what looks good to read. Truthfully, I’d felt depressed for weeks and haven’t been able to sit and concentrate on anything especially the silence required to write. But since the start of the month I’ve been journalling a lot–which helps free my mind, taking the thought trash out. I’ve been journal-typing as well as writing longhand. And its worked. Two days this week I was caught by a thought, an image in my mind, and was moved to immediately sit and make notes. Two poems look to be forthcoming.
I got off the bus and immediately dug through my backpack, flipping through my notebook and tested a poem by reading it aloud. I passed a children’s playground and a baseball diamond. I passed a young couple holding hands. The poem sounded better than I remembered.
Fort Mason Center is in the Marina District near the Golden Gate bridge. There’s several boats out in the water and children ran on the patch of grass I saw in the distance. I found a bench and dug through my bag to figure out what I wanted to do with my set. I had a chapbook to sell, so I could read a lot from that. But I still felt ill-prepared and was near disappointed with myself. All I could see was everything I hadn’t done or finished or remembered to bring.
I was early and alone. I didn’t bother posting the reading on Facebook– when I read at this venue the last year, nobody responded to my invite. And tonight there were so many local events competing. During my busride, when a friend of mine called me back, responding finally to my early morning voice mail, I didn’t bother mentioning it.
A huge parking lot and a lot of empty spaces. Most of the people I saw were in white jackets, all kitchen workers on break from the area’s restaurants. A few stray tourists and resident joggers. But nothing moved except me. I walked around to the far side of the building, sat on another bench, looked at the water and passing ships and boats and meditated.
The reading takes place inside a bookstore. The coffee shop half of the bookstore was dark and shuddered. When I arrived, two people behind the counter barely acknowledged me. I was a ghost or they were. I began combing through the bookshelves as gradually more people wandered in. I heard my name mentioned– James hasn’t shown up yet, someone said. They began setting up chairs and the other featured reader apparently came in. I wandered around unseen for a long time until the guest host came over and found me, recognizing me from a previous read. He asked me to write out my introduction for him, so I pulled some paper out of my backpack and scribbled down a couple of lines. Then– he introduced me to the nights other feature, a older woman who turned out to be the lover of a famous writer I’d admired since I began doing poetry in the 90’s. She offered me to go first, so she could get herself ready, she said.
Not very many people, 12-15. All regulars, I presumed. Usually features read for 15, 20 minutes. They gave me a half hour. My heart sank over all the poems I forgot to bring. But it turned out better than expected. I read two poems I’d been re-working the last day or so and they both were received well. From the podium, I can hear and feel how the audience is receiving me. Between that and the feel of the words and lines (and breath) in my mouth, is the space where I find if a poem works or not. I’d look up at the crowd– a few people kept their eyes closed, one woman smiled, the man she sat with nodded along with me as I read, as if picturing the words running before his eyes. People clapped, generously.
And the woman who followed me, the woman I didn’t know I’d already heard of, came up with a stack of books in her arms, books that date well past the early 70’s. She looked professorial. I loved her, her voice, attitude. She had a warmth about her that charmed me. In each of the books she had, there was a napkin for a bookmark. She’d pick up a book, go to the bookmark, read and then refer to a stack of printed pages on the podium, read a poem from there, then choose another book. She was funny, accessible and real. So many readings can be dry or academic, but she was fun, slightly profane and grandmotherly in a way that charmed my heart. I wanted a copy of the book she was selling, but when I overheard her say $15, I let it go. I had $20 bucks left and not much more in my bank account until the 15th. But at the end of the reading, as people mulled around and shook hands or whatever, she offered to trade books– not sell. I gave her two chapbooks for her thick memoir. Then, I wanted to get out of there.
So many times, after readings, I kinda disappear into the night and get home alone. I’m not good at selling or schmoozing or chatting. I want to do the poems and get paid and get outta dodge. A couple of people bought copies of my book (lunch money tomorrow!) and a couple others were so generous and sweet in regards to their response to my work. I thanked them, all the while taking baby steps to the front door.
One woman, older and blonde, approached carrying a huge bag in front of her, hugging it with both hands while a purse hung off one shoulder. She and I left at the same time, talking. In my heart, I wanted to do what I’d always done– wander off alone quietly. But it turned out, she and I were heading to the bus stop together. I relaxed myself. Tried not to think things I always think, but just relaxed, talked and listened. I kept my heart open for her while thinking– isnt’ this what I preferred? To have friends, to be around more women, to not feel so alone. We crossed the parking lot and were soon off speaking of writing and poetry and on to movies and that new music documentary I haven’t yet seen. Then, after another block, music. She said she writes muscially and is inspired by jazz. What kind of music do I listen to. Everything, I said. In my mind, I flashed on my Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton’s Jolene and how much I love them, then added: Even some country music.
At the bus stop she opened up, talking about her years attending the bluegrass festival, her passion for Steve Earle and Merle Haggard. The bus came pretty quick. It was crowded and we didn’t feel obligated to sit with one another and continue. It was nice. Letting go of my shyness, remaining open to her, practicing conversation, practicing presence. She wasn’t attractive to me, it wasn’t that… As a younger man, I often felt myself shut down, like my rib-cage is a kind of clam shell of insecurity that shuts around my heart and I never know what to say. Things have changed. Over the years, I’ve overprotected myself so thoroughly I feared I’d become an emotional hermit. Apparently, little by little, I’ve grown.