How many years ago was it when my friend told me: You know, poetry readings are like AA Meetings…
Turns out he found as much value in one as the other. The two rooms were companions and shook hands in his mind. I am not a member of The Program, but I attended one with him, and I get his point.
I watched on line all week as A—— advertised and encouraged people to attend the Saturday afternoon poetry event she hosted. She posted and re-posted announcements daily. The Friday before, I snuck around the office and found an empty room. I sat with a cup of hot water and waited for her to call and patch me into her radio show. Earlier, she mentioned I wouldn’t have to read anything on air, just talk about why I do what I do. Unfortunately, I believed her and didn’t bring any poems with me to that vacant office. She called me and one other poet to appear on her radio show live. As the other poet read appropriately short poems, I looked through my email for something I’d mailed myself and found it just in time.
The reading was mid-afternoon 3-5pm, and though it was scheduled simultaneously with the Black Panther’s Reunion festivities across town, I expected a sizable audience. My bad.
The reading occurred at the library at the Fruitvale Bart station. All this time I never knew about a library. But you walk up one block through the little mall of mini-stores and apartments then turn left and at the next corner and you’ll see a modestly glassed in lobby with a corkboard ratted with flyers. I entered and found… a lobby, where a mid-50’s Mexican gentleman and a woman stood with four pre-teen kids waiting for the elevator. We all piled on and the man pointed and laughed at the elevator buttons. There was only one choice, only one floor.
The library was full of lemony light and occupied the entire floor. On first scan it seemed more geared towards a children’s library. I walked up one aisle, looking for perhaps another staircase or evidence of a poetry reading. I turned around listening for voices or looking for rows of chairs and saw nothing obvious. I approached a librarian and she said, “the conference room at the end of aisle 13.” Just as I approached the door I saw the back of A——‘s wheelchair.
In the conference room were 12 people in a circle around three tables assembled into a C. I walked in just after it started. Once it started in earnest, the door was closed by a dred-locked security dude. The reading looked part community meeting, part AA meeting. The large room left plenty of unused space. Behind us, a young girl sat on the floor against the wall beneath the rooms only window, successfully ignoring us while doing her thing with a cellphone. After I sat down, two other women showed up ‘for a friend’ and after realizing that friend already read, the two surreptitiously got up and left. Not that I blamed them. I was one of four features, and we nearly outnumbered the others, who read poems in the open mic. All features read quietly while seated in the circle. The poems (and a sweet novel excerpt from a 82 year old woman’s freshly published first book) were good, solid.
Because it was quiet, I immediately re-structured my set (read: my expectations). I wouldn’t need to stand, wouldn’t need to get work too hard, wouldn’t need to fill the room with my voice. When it was my turn to read, I changed from where I was sitting so that when I came up from the page, I could look and clearly see everyone’s eyes in the circle. I read the new, long poem for my coworker Linda — imagining her standing just outside the circle, listening. Hopefully she was proud. While reading, it would have been a good challenge to read without effort or energy. To read and let the words do the work, while I sat still. I couldn’t sit still. I rubbed my knees compulsively, my hands floated while I spoke. I shifted and squirmed in my seat. It as close as I get to dancing. When A—— told me to ‘wrap it up in a minute’ I pulled out a poem Little Green Houses, which I think is one of my favorites and it did get a laugh at least. After me, the last person left on the open mic, then it was over.
I didn’t want to stay in the room. The forced pandering exchanges: Oh, I loved your poems — did you like mine? I was desperate to avoid. I stacked my chair, then hugged an older woman who pleasantly reminded me I hadn’t shaved in four days and tickled. I grabbed my pack and bee-lined for the bathroom, only to be followed by one of the dudes from the reading. For all the things that rattle my cage of discomfort, peeing in tandem is pretty high on the chart. I couldn’t wash my hands fast enough to escape, and he stood next to me at the sink, then waited and stared while I futilely ran my hands under the air-blower. The machine only produces ice cold air… A watched pot never boils and wet hands can’t dry while a stranger watches and waits. I gave up. I took the bandana out of my back pocket, then said: “Respectfully, I’m not giving you my handkerchief…” This is a Seinfeld skit I wasn’t ready for. We walked out of the restroom together and met another man from the reading now coming in. We both know him and accepted that he offered no eye contact and yeah, I have known him maybe 20 years and have NEVER seen him smile, about ANYTHING. Even the jokes in his own work. But he’s still a dynamic writer and I give him his space in love. We took the single floor elevator down without running into anyone else. We chatted. We shook hands and parted to different directions.
And really, how much difference is there between the community offered in a poetry reading versus an AA Meeting? There seems a similar fabric. There is the sharing of story, of struggle and success and realization. There is being validated in not being alone. There’s being heard. There’s being inspired and fortified by others voices and accomplishments. There’s recognition in hearing other’s perspective and stories. And there is the living with purpose under the struggle of the word until we gather again…