Archive for March, 2015

The Man With Two Dogs

Posted: March 30, 2015 in Uncategorized
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dog near river

The poetry reading Saturday night at the bookstore went well. However much I grumbled over being there on a Saturday night, the reading felt good and the poems were well received. The room was full of seniors, myself included; all men and women frosted by time. Their eyes I appreciated, especially the two older women in the center of the room whom I didn’t know yet adored and read almost exclusively to them.

But what I mostly want to talk about is the man who was the first to arrive at the bookstore and remained there the entire night. He sat in a folding chair near one of the bookshelves and held two small terriers, a whitened grandmother and her small brown grandchild. The man, an older Filipino gentleman whose black hair was just yielding grey and white strands, wore black aviator shades and kept the dogs hugged together in his lap. I greeted him when I arrived and he said as if apologizing, I’ve never been to a poetry reading. He remained quiet and attentive, the dogs too.

Until the co-feature, this older man brought in his old border collie with its whitened muzzle and the other man’s terriers became agitated and curious, tossing barks across the room until the man whispered them down. The co-feature’s wife petted her border collie to the floor though the dog was impatient and uncomfortable and kept standing, looking around and changing positions.

There was less than 20 people in the bookstore, including dude behind the counter. Outside though, I kept seeing the shadow of someone walking back and forth, staring in at us.

I think there’s another poet outside wanting to get in, Someone said.

He’s no poet. The host said, dismissive, stopping everything with her raised palm. He’s been here before, trust me. He’s better outside.

The co-feature was gently flaking with pretention, reading formal poems, sonnets and sestinas as a habitually condescending professor. At one point, he turned the book he read out of towards us in the audience, pointing out which lines rhymed. But the work was fine enough and I bought one of his books though he didn’t look cross-eyed at mine nor offered a trade, as other writers with class might.

The reading I honored and I told the host she did something I’d never seen another host do. She actually read the poetry collections of the features beforehand and wrote an original introduction about how she received their work. I mean, really. NOBODY does that.

The features read first; with no audience applause between poems, everyone saves it for last. Reading first was cool because it relaxed me and allowed me to listen more attentively.

And the open mic went on and was mostly forgettable if for two things. First, was the man who’s introduction to his poem was better than the poem itself. He spoke about losing his youngest brother to a accident many years ago and how during the funeral his older brother announced to the others: We need to make better reasons to come together. I’ve heard so many people in so many families say this, but this man’s brother meant it and followed through. He rented a house in Florida and got the entire family to meet there and be together for a holiday. The oldest relative was begged into baking a Mother’s biscuit recipe. The poem he read was nearly anticlimactic to the build-up in his introduction yet he was quite moving.

And then, the host said the name of the man holding the terriers in his arms. He quietly rose and walked to the front of the room, no mic since the store was so small. The wife of the co-feature with the border collie, leaned over to her husband and whispered: He has 9 dogs.

I’m no poet, the man said quietly. But I’ve been moved by some of the things I’ve heard here tonight. And I’m going to try to speak from my heart and this is what I want to tell you…

We sat there, I did at least, cringing. The night had already heard substandard or at least dusty poems from people who regularly wrote. But this man, not a poet, and quiet, and diligent over his dogs, didn’t promise anything good. But eventually, the man spoke gently and slowly. His words emerging one at a time as if forged. I played his story in my mind while he talked.

I want to tell you, the man said, of the time I lost one of my dogs in the river. We camped in a canyon near the river and while I was setting up, she got away from me. She went into the water and disappeared. I lost her to the water. This was near dark. I walk down into the river and follow it as it turned this way and that. I come out on sand looking for her, calling for her, to nothing. And I go back into the water and then come back out as it got darker and darker. But finally I found her on one of the banks and I went over to her and scooped her up in my arms. I carried her back through the water until we came back to the camp. And that’s the story I wanted to tell you.

And he walked off.

And somehow that non-poem poem, was the most beautiful thing I’d heard. Not because of word choice or poetics, but because of heart. Because of its honesty. Because somehow .. perhaps in how delicately he spoke, his words struck me vividly and I was with him at that camp, amongst the canyon walls and its river. I felt suspense. I felt relief. I felt grateful he was mercifully short. But mostly: the truth and heart of his voice surprised me. The more he spoke, the more I wanted him to speak. Was I the only one who heard him?

As the night finished and people wandered off, I touched the man’s arm. He was thoughtful and kind with his words about my poems. When I told him how much I liked what he said, he easily shrugged it off. I’m no poet, I was just speaking from the heart.

There was no way to tell him, that’s the whole point. Beauty and the heart within it is what I keep searching for. Of all those who spoke that night, it was from him I learned the most. While I spoke with another poet, he turned with his drowsy dogs in his arms and walked out.

Frida

was staged at a hotel near Lake Merritt. I was not featured but was still motivated to leave the house since two of the features were people I knew and liked. The bus let me off a few blocks away and I happily strolled through a tree-lined neighborhood I always liked with its dense collection of apartments and crystalline lake at the end of the block. One street over to my left was a café that once held a series that was so supportive and essential to my growth. Right there at the corner my friend Jon once lived and we’d take philosophical laps around the lake, return to his apartment for black tea and challah. Over there lived another friend who’s now a DJ and living in the Filmore district of The City. And… who did I help move into this building? How long ago was that? One complex at the end of the block was a old building my cousin John Edward once briefly lived. I watched a line of men walk mournfully towards it as if a curfew whistle had just gone off. I thought of that beat up room Johnny was eventually kicked out of, him preferring to break things and live in the park under the counsel of birds. Rest In Peace, Johnny.

The hotel was a gorgeous old building with a bouquet of balloons at the door. I climbed the stairs and went in. To my left a huge dining hall full of people who’d just begun applauding. I heard a man on a mic and approached, but it didn’t feel right. I knew I was late, but this… is more ceremonial, a gathering or reunion. I returned to the front desk where two older ladies were talking. One woman pointed to the bar I’d shyly approached and told me to follow it around to the right. Just as I turned to do so, Roger, one of the folks I came to hear, bumped into me and greeted me warmly. He was carrying sheets of paper in one hand and heading outdoors, I presumed, to burn off nervousness and shuffle pages. She told you right, he said and pointed to where I should go and we separated.

There was another smaller bar where one blond woman worked. Usually this is my night off, she said breathless. The area had plush seats and several people sat around. I stood before the bar, kinda hungry and ordered a beer before thinking to do anything else. Roger came back and sat next to me with his pages. My beer arrived; I offered him a drink even as I was pretty sure he’d be comp-ed one as a feature. Better: a flatbread pizza was placed before him and he said it was free to him and demanded I take a slice. Man, was I hungry.

We chatted a moment before another poet came up and greeted him and sat on the other side. I waved, recognizing her but she looked at me, then through me, and I dropped my eyes to the table. He asked her help in eating pizza too and then we all sat there for a while talking about writing habits and what readings any of us were doing. I looked up and another woman approached, one who I was checking out before I realized I knew who it was. Did I ever tell you the time when I had courage to comb through dating websites and she once appeared as a suggested match? She never responded to or acknowledged my message and I’ve since had to file that away as a memory that didn’t happen, or think of it as if I was tripping. So: we just talked. She said she never sees me and I said, as if it were breaking news, how I realized I was a recluse and she said we’re writers, we’re all recluses. She asked if I was reading anywhere and then brow-beat me for not sending out any announcements. For some reason (what did I have to lose?) I told her I hated gambling on how popular I wished I was with how rarely anyone shows up when I’ve advertised readings. Not long after that did the reading start. Behind the bar is a smaller dining area and people had filled many of the tables. Some were having dinner with waiters swirling through the crowd. I saw the host, who I didn’t immediately recognize but he looked happy to see me and stopped.

I haven’t seen you since Above Paradise, he said of the now historical reading from the 90’s.
That reading was my university, I said.
It was my kindergarten he said and went about working the room and getting things together.
I sat at a small table across from Roger and realized he and I were the only two black men here. I felt glad I showed up. We didn’t talk. I finished my beer and listened.

The reading was great. A woman with her arms heavily tattooed sang a couple of songs on guitar. A man read a couple of funny short stories. Another poet was quite good; his writing voice close to Bukowski’s and his poems have gorgeous three-point landings. Roger read some very fine stories, the audience with him on every breath. The other reader whom I knew was funny–why I showed up– especially after opening his set with a dark poem, all I remember of was two characters bleeding while standing in a river. This, followed by poems imagining him hanging out with Frida Kahlo or good poems from deleted Facebook posts. The woman with the guitar came back and closed, playing an unfinished original blues song that sounds like something PJ Harvey would like. Everyone was really good and the reading and me getting out of the house worth it and a success.

And then there’s the ending. I didn’t immediately leave, neither did I know what to do with myself. People eventually crowded around Roger like smoke and I backed off choosing to shake hands with the man who organized the reading and who mentioned the Above Paradise. I greeted the poet who made me think of Bukowski. While standing there another poet surprised and greeted me. I wouldn’t have recognized him, his ubiquitous long hair now shorn down and his face a little fuller than I remembered. I stood there watching the room mingle and stir itself. When I remembered I wasn’t waiting for anyone and felt myself loitering, I turned and left.

chopped

‘…mise en place’ means far more than simply assembling all the ingredients, pots and pans, plates, and serving pieces needed for a particular period. Mise en place is also a state of mind.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend met me in the city and we sat for lunch. She mentioned wanting to write this April, the month being National Poetry Month. Writing in a vacuum is impossibly hard; one can be greatly bolstered and encouraged by simply meeting with others, using their enthusiasm and energy to push you if you need it. Writing isn’t particularly a social endeavor and many need the rhythm of other hearts beating over the same desire in order to produce work. I certainly could use encouragement, help, friends.

My friend text me a reminder today that ‘we were on for April.’ It was like being splashed with cold water. She’s serious. I have to meet her seriousness more than halfway. I haven’t been serious for years; I’ve allowed myself to be weighed down with depression, loneliness for so long I finally see it as an illness. An ill-at-ease heartache as if one’s heart remains anchored to a specific, unmoving landmark while your body, spirit keeps advancing.

The last year or so I assumed myself learning to Let Go through meditating and practicing mindfulness. Perhaps I haven’t learned anything at all. I’m still ignoring what’s alive and active and positive in front of me while favoring instead to focus on what I miss or what I wish or what I remember. For example: St. Paddy’s Day my best friend arranged to sit with me over some green beer and shots of Jameson, us celebrating the years we’d been friends—& black men with Irish sir-names. We met after work, him accompanied by his coworker, a young woman he’s been talking to. How she glowed finding the only bars of sunlight slicing down between the tall buildings. Her smile and sundress equally iridescent. We hugged and she bounced away from us while my friend and I pushed on to the already crowded bar, finding the last two seats and table.

He shared updates of what has been building between himself and the young woman, a thing still under construction on which we’ll touch no further. But I came to tell him about the last reading I had, about running into an old friend from high school and how sad it made me feel. I told him the story then he stopped me: Why did that make you feel sad? He said. Why was that a sad story?

I couldn’t explain it. I felt disarmed. He left the table for another round of beers, sat down and went on:

“So, this married woman actually follows you out of the reading in order to say goodbye to you… Stepping over her husband to get a hug from you on the street… And you find that sad… why?”

I… didn’t know. I filed it in my memory under sad, melancholy. My excuse being any number of excuses. But excuses are not facts.

I filed it as a sad story, because… I’m used to seeing my story as a sad story. It’s the preferred angle from which I examine everything. If I don’t have tears in my eyes, I can’t see clearly.

Whatever excuses I’ve made for not writing were just excuses. I am drowning from years of untreated depression. This is what I was thinking reading my friend’s text this morning. A text I received while also trying to get myself prepared for two readings I’m giving within the next four weeks. Instead of seeing the hope and encouragement of being asked to read anywhere, as well invited to write with someone, I almost want to cancel everything and collapse into nothing.

That’s making the easy and negative choice from a seat of illness.

I need to set up everything in order to encourage myself to write for the month of April. To assemble and prepare all my ingredients in order to writing workshop myself. To use my friend’s motivation and energy and shake myself awake. To that end, I’m gathering resources:

a.) Poetry Prompts dumped into Evernote—an easy and superb app available thru any browser and my phone. I’m taking poetry & writing prompts from everywhere and making a list of them
b.) Failed and drafted poems—that have been written and should be re-written, revisited. Editing, re-writing IS writing as it uses a related part of the brain. True, its more critical than the damn it all write everything part of the brain, but its better than nothing.
c.) Notebook & pen collection—as there are sheets of paper and pen make/models that soothe me, and those that don’t. And draft-writing on computer doesn’t work for me.
d.) Possible locations—knowing full well I prefer larger to smaller tables, sunlight to room light, being outside rather than at home, etc. And I know these places will have me and there will be space for me.

Years ago, I genuinely surprised myself and did write poems every day for the month of April. Sundays included. A couple of those poems have been published. Its possible. I proved it to myself. One must approach every day like a detective, a monk searching for the single flower emerged between the cracks in the sidewalk. Poetry is out there, folks. Let’s get em.

Nickie-Terry
There were several strikes against this poetry event having any audience at all.  The first was it being scheduled on a Saturday afternoon at 3, when other even main event readings I’ve attended don’t begin filling up until after sundown, irrespective of the day of the week.  Second: beyond being asked by the events organizer a week prior, I saw no advertisements or announcements.  Third: they were asking $15 per ticket.  Fourth: it turned out to be the first warm spring day of the year.  Who exactly wants to be indoors listening to poetry on a Saturday afternoon?  Besides me, I guess.

Since these readings never start on time, I killed time in a new bookstore across the street, empty of any life, including the behind the counter staff who could barely keep their eyes open.  When I made it to the venue, I was incredibly surprised.

There were about 20 or 30 people, mostly middle aged women, already seated in the arc of folding chairs along the right side of the room.  The stage was just the carpeted floor crowned with four large speakers on risers, and five abstract paintings aligned on the wall.  There was a vinyl poster advertising related events on its own stand on the floor. A comically large orange wingback chair on stage and a mic.  I immediately recognized the woman I’d been talking with over the phone who came over to me, “we’ve been waiting on you,” grabbed my wrist and led me deeper into the far side of the room where a jewelry case was open, across from  three folding tables aligned with an assortment of food, sandwiches and cake and a cooler of juice and water.

I was introduced to one young woman poet, then another.  I knew the third woman and fell immediately into her arms, having not seen her for years.  While still embracing and admiring one another– her seemingly a foot taller and more muscular than I– I heard my name screeched, turned and saw the only woman I will name here, Nedra.

Nedra’s gravitational pull drew me away from the other woman mid-sentence, where she held me and surprisingly kept saying the words, My Baby, as I lay in her arms.  She reminded me of every aunt I’ve known and loved, with long curly hair waterfalling her shoulders.  A oceanic blue dress hung over her bubbling frame like a choir’s robe.  She propped herself on a single crutch which clattered to the ground as she turned and recognized me.  I immediately picked it up and faced her.  I made sure to introduce both women, even though they knew one another.  I’ve known the first, taller woman from poetry events since the mid 90’s.  Nedra and I though, went to high school together.

I distinctly remember her, though we never spent any time together as friends.  I remember, if you want my honesty, her looking at me from the height of an insurmountable crush.  A crush I could never awaken for and return.  We had no classes together and neither am I sure we were in the same grade.  We would pass one another in the hall and could recognize each other.  She was not someone who caught my attention. But until now, had we ever really had a conversation?  Her words surprised and comforted me and I emerged from the embrace and she swept over 30 years in a breath, moving to New Orleans for a while then back here to California where she’d gotten married (she but briefly pointed to the side of the room where her husband sat).  My own 30 years I kept silent about.  Its too much, too much to exchange in passing as one would business cards.

The show started quickly.  I’d say, before 3:15 everyone was asked to take their seats and they did and we started.  The show was hosted by Percy Mae of whom a couple of things need to be said.  First: she was introduced to me slightly bent over a walking stick.  Her hair was short and cloud silver.  She wore a blue housedress and simple house-boots, these soft, cottony black moccasins.  A modernized, remixed Moms Mabley, the huge orange chair was for her.  She would host the show and introduce performers, spit jokes and keep the audience engaged between acts.  A superb hostess really.  But she couldn’t be real.  To look in her face, however black cracks or not, to see how she’s dressed amidst these other wopmen dressed as if for church, Percy Mae is someone in performance.  That performance is extraordinary with her never breaking character, nor revealing even a crumb of artifice. Only if she’d snatched off her wig and revealed a cancerously ravaged scalp would I even begin to wonder if she was real.  Even then I’d compliment her genius for taking it that far, cutting her own hair down for ‘effect’.  Her performance, hands down — real or not– was the greatest of the night.

Otherwise, the afternoon was poetry as theater; taking the words and imagery of poetry and performing it, staging it, like mini-one act plays.  I was continually asked if I had music-cues, which confused me.  I just wanted to be heard.  The first young woman recited strong, confident poems about woman-hood and pride.  The second performer was also a playwright.  She was fun, using several instrumentals on cd and dancing in chorus with herself.  Using a gold butterfly cape with an immense wingspan.  Her poems stood from a confident place of femininity and were in character as a woman in the club flirting and being flirted with.

I was introduced as the evenings hunk– Percy’s words, not mine.  I was the only male poet. I read three poems to an attentive room of primarily women and the poems felt good to do and were received well. The woman organizer who closed the event’s poetry section, used props as well as music. Bringing out a couple of towels (one for Percy Mae) and shower caps and doing a poem about being a bathroom superstar.

There was a break for food and most of the people stood and lined up at the tables across from me. I didn’t eat and didn’t get in line. But Nedra came over to me, said I should get some bread pudding since she made all the deserts. I didn’t move; I wasn’t hungry or felt like snacking. But I looked up and Nedra brought me a bowl of banana pudding with a blue plastic knife in it, no more forks. How long has it been since a woman brought me… Anything. I took the bowl and added to it, slicing a chunk of cake she’d also made while she watched me, then sat down and ate as she made her way back across the room to her seat and the second half of the show started.

An older man put down his walking cane and expertly covered The Four Tops and the Temptations to a CD of instrumentals. A young girl, a teenager, rapped some original pieces while her mom circled around her as paparazzi and filmed her set. Both were superb. Another young woman, mostly huge Diana Ross hair and a matchstick body sang gospel. Also wonderful.

And I began to feel antsy, wanting to leave. I enjoyed the music even as my heart compelled me to escape, to return to my nothing at home. From where I sat in the room, I’d have to cross between performers and audience. I’d have to await courage and the right moment. I wanted to say goodbye and be polite since everyone was nice and loving to me. But more than that I felt nervous and anxious. I don’t know why. The Event Organizer cleaned up the food area, stuffing the garbage can. I watched as Nedra stacked three desert containers and carry them across the gallery then hand them to her husband who turned and walked outside with them. The Event Organizer wiped down the food table and as she crossed the room returning to her seat near the sound system, I followed her, letting her lead me to the exit.

The gospel singer with the hair began to sing a Janet Jackson song, Let’s Wait Awhile. Nedra turned her head away from me. Curly hair fell before her face in a veil. I spun on my heels and went outside.

Unlike the hundreds of times I’ve ghosted a poetry reading or event, this was the only time I was ever followed out.

I made it half a block before my name rose behind me. I turned and in the middle of the sidewalk, in flowing blue fabric, stood Nedra. Obediantly, I lowered my head and fast strolled back to her, hearing my name a second time. Not from Nedra, but from another woman standing across from her leaned against a parked car– who helped her shout my name down the street, and who smiled and nodded and ‘uh-huhed’ as I came back.

We stood and hugged and promised to keep in touch. Her mascara matching her dress, but unable to hide everything beneath the surface of her expression. I asked her to friend me on Facebook, wanting her to write me, to exchange stories over the last 20 years. She looked at me with what I could only describe as tenderness and said she enjoyed my poetry. To say: my last sight of her had to’ve been in 1986, a couple of lifetimes away from both of us. Between us was a gigantic What If. Did the woman standing beside the car see it? All the decisions neither of us ever made. Could I have used her friendship when my mother died, when my identity was shattering? Could she have used mine? She was a strange alternative life I never got to know. The babies, the memories, the friendship that never happened and we never knew spun around us in the wind, all empty and lifeless like ashes or leaves. She said she’ll be in touch. She’s always throwing parties or bbq’s, she said. And I never attend any, as I’m always alone, as I was the rest of that night and weekend. I couldn’t imagine travelling all the way out to where she said she lived, attending one of her gatherings, dateless and car-less, pretending to be normal and sociable. She promised she would look me up. I told her I’d appreciate that and how it was good to see her in person. After all these years. I touched her arm, exchanged a few words like you’d take specific coins from someone’s palm, turned and walked off into the sunset.