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.