Archive for April, 2016

SPOILER: I don’t. They write me.

I woke up in time to catch CBS Sunday Morning and the moment it was over, I clicked off the television, already annoyed by the Sunday morning crew newscast, and started getting myself dressed and my stuff together.

Four notebooks, some print outs of articles and Other People’s Poetry I found the previous week at work, two pens, one pencil. Some books I didn’t open.

I’m a morning person, obviously. If I can get out of the house before 8:30 I feel like I’m accomplishing something and there’s hope. I like it early when the streets begin to aspirate gently. What people there are move slowly. By rights I should walk, but the arthritis in my knees and my unreliable feet make that downhill mile more daunting than I’d like. I don’t wait long for the bus. From there, its a two block walk past the children’s playground to my preferred café. The other name cafe’s you’d recognize, with better coffee and pastries, have tables that are much too small. In their large communal rooms, only a couple of tables are appropriate, both at the window and against the brick wall (one inside, one out). Those tables usually go first to students staring into their laptops or seniors leisurely combing over newspapers. I found one café with strong coffee and kinda miserable Costco pastries and huge tables with bay windows overlooking the lake that’s dreamlike for me. Its owned by an Ethiopian family. And part of my effort to get here early is for a prime window seat. Both tables were taken by the time I arrived, but I found a large table, centered against the wall, a couple of arms length away from the window where a woman sat talking on her phone with her laptop yawned open. On my other side, a younger Asian male finished a breakfast burrito and stirred the white pages on his desk.

I took out a yellow legal pad and a pencil and wrote three pages. Those were pages of therapy. Cleansing out whatever stray detritus floated in my head. Last nights dream, my insecurity, shame, wishes for what I’d rather be doing, what I did the day before and what I didn’t do. I wrote without stopping, as if sitting across a therapist and free associating. Until finally I ran out. I sipped coffee, I pinched off a chunk of muffin.

In one of my notebooks I made a bullet list: What goals did I want to accomplish, Right Now, while sitting here? I wrote three sentences. My intent was to write about Prince, via three specific experiences. Friday morning, I wrote a page of stray inconsequential notes and phrases. I gazed at them again, then took up the essay I’d found on line the previous week. Then read a poem. If writing my head clear with a pencil is one thing, this act of reading harmonizes my brain. Pointing my imagination to a goal, a direction.

Reading was a way to jump start the conversation in my head. Where and how do writers begin– how do they track their feelings on the subject, in this case Prince. How are they successful and how do they disappoint me? The poem I read started with a truly lovely idea and image, but it kinda devolved into sugary gibberish as it reached its end. The essay I read was better: strong, beautiful, admirable and personal. He’d write a far better version of whatever it is I’m sitting here hoping will emerge.

I reminded myself there were three memories I wanted to try to capture. I took up another notebook and free-wrote thru one memory at a time. I couldn’t stop. It was like automatic writing. I watched the images in my head and like a journalist made notes on what I was seeing, thinking, feeling. Because it was a poem, I pushed the boundaries of what I remembered and attempted to add things, images, elements that didn’t happen but could have. I wrote quickly, almost trembling in effort to write faster.

I stopped and looked up. A half dozen spandexed joggers had come in and sat down. A dude with a very runny nose sat next to me, also with a notebook so I quietly wished him luck. I took up my second memory and turned it over in my mind. Hadn’t thought of it in years. Then picked up a pen and ran with it; When I couldn’t remember something, I made it absurd. Surreal. Sometimes its not just what the Thing is, its what else it is. I wrote quickly, choreographing all manner of insane things into a memory which was more like a GIF file stored in my brain. Same with that third memory. Crazy write, I think is the phrase.

I left my laptop at home. On purpose. Hand writing is like sculpting. Creating directly from the heart. Because you’re writing by hand, you work slower and become more specific in your word choice — or crazy in your word choice once you realize you can’t stop and check a thesaurus for an alternative. To stop and check something is to stop, period. I only found myself stopping and looking up across the room from time to time as if I were listening to someone on the phone and they just put me on hold. It was swimming a few strokes and coming up for air. Right now, the goal isn’t to get anything right, its just to Write: to dump out of my mind every crumb of imagery that wants to come up while turning something specific over in my head.

Consequently, to initiate something on the computer– as I’m doing now– is creating something directly from ego. The effort is faster, which isn’t to say better, more muscular and from a seat of certainty, knowing. Ego. I can end this, scan it for errors, and publish it quickly. Instead of being the best it could be, it’ll just be Done. Last week I found a quote attributed to Dylan Thomas: “The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flush, or thunder in.” I think handwriting leaves holes that allows for conversation to happen later once you re-approach the page. What I’m writing now, this blog, will be finished in a few paragraphs and never thought of again.

But yesterday… I left the café to go to a bakery for cookies. Then I returned home, put on Oscar Peterson, Art Blakely then a recording of Langston Hughes The Weary Blues. I cleaned up the kitchen, smoked half a joint, then typed up all the notes from earlier this morning. The typing showed me a lot of holes and clichés. How many different words can there be for heart? How many different ways can I say galaxy? Being high I made editing choices that were raw and interesting (and brief. High-James is not a great writer, but he’s a solid typist and edits well enough).

Those notes are marinating now. I finished and mailed them to myself for today, to print and go back over tonight when I leave work and to review ‘what happened’. I printed those pages blindly without looking, then slipped them into my notebook. To marinate your work seems most essential in writing– even more important than whether you type or hand-write. My brain is, even as I type this, very curious as to what happened in those notes. But forcing myself to wait while thinking other things, to let the words congeal on the page without me, allows me to approach my own work again, but with fresh eyes, a different face and new outlook. To read my own work as if I were a friend or critic of myself.

ME: Hey!! I wrote seven pages yesterday!
NEW ME: Are any of them worth reading?
ME: Hater!

Kid, This Ain't Your Night

I stood on the train platform feeling desperately sad, anxious and lonesome. It was nearing 10pm and from where I stood, it would be a full 90 minute commute back to my door thanks to getting to my last connecting bus stop five minutes early.

I’d felt like I wasted my time and evening. In truth, I hadn’t. But standing there wanting desperately to be home in bed, I remembered something I’d said to a friend several months prior after she complained about a reading she’d given that I attended. In that case, I felt she did a great job, but she saw the evening differently and was percolating with a remorse similar to what I felt on that train platform last night. I asked her: How do you want to be paid? I don’t mean in terms of money, because in practicing poetry as an art, there isn’t much if any money to tap into. Its possible– One month I paid rent just from representing poems on stage. But if money remains an elusive goal as a poet… what do you want in exchange for your poems? Beyond the writing filling your heart… How do you want to be paid?


The venue was a new African themed restaurant in a neighborhood I knew well. The host contacted me through Facebook and was kind and respectful and I wanted to be good and make him feel like reaching out to me was worth it. It was a reading I looked forward to up until I walked into the room. It was a corner restaurant, huge and beautiful with large bay windows. There were three 10-foot long communal tables made of dark wood centered in the room. Huge tropical plants like security screens in two of the four major corners. The open kitchen with its short bar/register and stools to the left as you enter looked like a clean science lab. I circled around to a small table in back over-looking the entire room. It was filled with people, all eating from bowls or rectangular plates, drinking red wine from short water glasses. There were a few children scattered politely about and the clientele was diverse. Older white people, middle aged Latino kitchen staff, young black women.

All my contacts had been via email and I hadn’t met anyone. At the tiny stage where a dj played, a man who I assumed was one of the people who reached out to me (and wasn’t) stood on stage with his back to the room, scrolling through his phone. I saw a woman in a elegantly form fitting black dress floating back and forth. I finally approached her.

Have you met the other poets? She asked. She was model gorgeous. I followed her as she approached three people, none of whom were friendly beyond the warm softness of their hands. The first dude was this bald mountainous brother in a three piece gray suit. He greeted me quickly and just as quick swung back around to whatever he was drinking/ eating/ saying to the man next to him. The hostess, a truly beautiful sister sitting at a table with her relative, took my hand at our intro but her eyes never saw me. How she turned towards me without using her face, gave me her palm, and kept her eyes pointed away from me through our hellos. The last woman was one whom I recognized. She was warm and remembered me, but our chat was truncated. She sat with someone and I left them to it. I regretted coming alone and retreated back to my table with a glass of water and a book to read until the room’s light became too soft.

The room gradually emptied and after a while, the woman who refused eye contact started the program and introduced me. Even as I predicted they’d call me first, I still wasn’t immediately prepared since she skipped through the intro but quick. When she introduced me, she didn’t read the three sentence bio I was asked to provide. I found it funny that instead of reading any of it she summarized it as: Our first poet read a bunch of places and been published and stuff… Then called me to the dj stage and got off.

The stage was small, about the size of a average family style table. I pulled up a chair with me to get my work together, then stood and considered the room. To my left and against the wall, the woman in the black dress was standing behind a stationary video camera set up high on a tripod. Then a man appeared, holding another smaller camera, and stood in front of me about an arm and a half’s length away.

My view from the stage; at my feet was one of the 10-foot long tables, empty except for chairs. To my left, were the audience of 7 to 10 people seated behind two other tables. Against the farthest wall facing me were 5 more people, and to my right another 5, including a child holding a cell phone and an older girl doing the same. The man with the hand held camera danced in front of me while I read, his camera lens floating and changing direction. Behind my right shoulder, they’d set up a soft key light, about four feet in diameter.

I’d been told the event was being recorded, which I didn’t mind. What surprised me was the second camera and how close he was. I wasn’t doing work I memorized– when I did look up into the lens, he was so close I could watch the iris rotating to focus.

I began reading. When I read poems on stage, the second and most important thing I’m doing is listening to you, Mr and Mrs Audience. You give me half of whatever it is I’m doing– your energy is necessary to feed me and I realized, THAT is my money, what I’m here for. Your Presence. I want you to be curious about what you’re hearing and invest in it.

1+1=3 (This poem)+(Your Presence)= This magical, un-nameable Third Thing.

This reading is not about me. Its about the energy exchange between us and what occurs when you meet me halfway. Even my reading from the page, when I look up, I’m touching base — I’m checking in. I can hear you, your grunts of approval or disapproval, your surprise, your laughter. Your indifference.

I want a level of trust and investment between us. That for the work I’m doing this stage, that you as audience are doing something, too. What I promise is to not waste your time. I don’t do a lot of introductions because the poem should explain itself. I promise your imagination a journey and to engage your intelligence. Even if the poem is supposed to be funny or is an abstract word painting, there’s still a seed in the words that will sprout if you are present to receive it.

I didn’t feel that presence. I’m insecure and wrong, of course. I sat and was greeted by a round of people. But more than hands, more than props, what I wanted was the older woman at the table to my left to look up at me. Just: meet my eyes. And she wouldn’t do it. Maybe this is how she listens, maybe she remained with me and that was her good ear. Perhaps the same could be said about the older couple across from her, too. I caught myself thinking, it didn’t matter that the white couple at the small table in back was with me, what mattered was the Filipino rapper next to them who kept his face down over his plate.

The rooms energetic weirdness, my having to open the reading, the isolating unfriendly-ness I felt, threw me. The last short funny poem I read, got no laughs and I stumbled, thinking: Did I fuck up? Did I lose you? I felt nervous and small and anxiously wanted to stop and get off.

The night went on. The room slowly emptied. Two youngsters rapped, another young brother sang solid and original songs, despite the camera man’s videotape running out and him shutting down his handheld camera mid song then sitting there, putting the performer in a much dimmer mood light. Three girls danced to his music. Later, the dude in the suit mounted the stage. He was fine if pretentious and arrogant, leisurely extending his time unconcerned with any time limit. No one challenged him. He bossed the room with his between poem banter. When he asked the audience if there were any introverts in the house, several people clapped and I thought– no true introvert would dare answer that. He said if you don’t like this next poem you don’t like my momma, cause this is her favorite. Then told us it was written about ten years ago. All of his work rhymed, was memorized and easy for him. And the poem he started well over his time limit, he forgot midway. Blaming his long day then asked us what he should do next before his brother crossed the room handing him a phone, letting him read another.

I left a few minutes before end of show. The long three-transfer trip across the bay. I got home feeling empty and tired. I wasn’t as bad and as off as I thought or felt, I’m sure. There’s just some nights I don’t know what to do with myself. These poems are all I got.