Archive for January, 2017

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Months before it opened, I was asked to participate in a poetry reading as part of a museum exhibit. When I finally went to the gallery, Generation to Generation at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, it was as reporter with a notebook slipped in my pocket. It wasn’t until walking through the gallery and being present with the material that I was startled by how appropriate it was for me. The theme was Inherited Memory, and for me as an adopted son, I felt all my memories were inherited and somehow not wholly mine. I maintain memories from both the family who raised me and the family I belong to by blood– memories, it seemed, that neither side was all that interested in engaging me with.

Another local poet, who turns out to be my cousin in my adoptive family, mentioned in social media something about his grandfather and great-grandfather. I knew both of those men, and because of my cousins age, I wasn’t wholly sure he did. I was at his grandfather’s bedside the afternoon he died, I remember his great grandfather capping on me for being a chubby kid crawling under the dining room table, wondering if I’d get stuck. Body shaming children. Yeah, that was the good old days alright.

I walked through the modestly sized gallery and stood for a long time with each work. I made notes, here and there, regarding everything I saw. As if I could take tiny DNA samples of each piece and work them into… something. Much of the art was fascinating, gorgeous. But of course there was one I was deeply drawn to. Unbeknownst to me, it was made by a brother, Hank Willis Thomas. The work, What Goes Without Saying, is a installation using a wooden punishment stock with a classic style steel microphone positioned before it. Somehow, that piece is indicative of my poetry life and memories. In its stillness and juxtaposition, it says everything I haven’t been able to put into words. Its the kind of art I wish I’d made.

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Thinking about Inherited Memory, thinking of my adoption story and my cousin, thinking too about that stock in the middle of the gallery, I started writing. The drafted poem was about my adoption and me being the holder of family story that no one has time to hear, nor wants to. The following week, I returned for a second lap through the museum, this time with one of my poetry friends. I wanted to see it again through her eyes, see it again for myself, see if anything new caught my attention for subsequent re-writes. A couple days later I had a solid second draft that felt good to go.

The idea was to pair a poet with one of the art works on display. I was open to read wherever I was assigned. But when I got the email from the event organizer saying she was having me stand with Thomas’ What Goes Without Saying, I audibly gasped and immediately texted my friend about it. I was to stand with one piece that really got my attention.

I auditioned a third draft of the poem at a open mic in Oakland, after which another friend came up to me and said: You just told my story! I hugged her, and said: I had to.

The event was held on “the last good night in America” as the following day was the, ugh, inauguration. There were about six or seven writers paired with paintings, installations. A museum volunteer moved a mic stand from one work to another while a second volunteer recorded it on a video camera, and another acted as curator introducing the name of the artist and the poet. We were given only a few minutes to read. Early on it felt like a remarkable and special evening, an event I would have gone to if I hadn’t been in it. Art excites me. Certainly this kind of event has been done before, but here and tonight it felt new and different. The audience herded from event to event and was open and attentive. When it was my turn people assembled into an arc around me and I read from my journal sending my voice to the people in the back peeking over shoulders. Years ago, I wondered if audiences could be engaged with my adoption story, if anyone could relate to an adoptees mindset, to my struggles with identity and family. Now, I no longer care — I write as truthfully as I can and let it go. If it holds meaning for you, awesome. Lets talk. If not, let the words wash over you in the abstract and we’ll soon move on to something else.

The event ended and I felt positive and energized. What is this on my face?? Oh, my bad– I’m smiling. I told the organizer she should do this every year. It would get my attention again even as an audience. My friend came to see the final show and even got to participate. The whole event lasted about an hour, afterwards we stood around chatting with folks until we all were gently swept out by patient security guards, one of whom, an older African brother, smiled at me–recognizing me from my earlier reconnaissance visits– saying he liked very much what I was doing and told me so lovingly and parental while steadily pushing me towards the exit.

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The Lyft driver pulled up and I jumped into the more inviting front seat for a change, asking first if he minded. He didn’t. A vibrant youngster in a backwards baseball cap, his car smelling like chocolate cookies vaped, not baked. He immediately asked where I was going– to a poetry reading at a bookstore (“Do you read your own poems or…”), then asked what kind of poetry I wrote (Gothic, via his understanding, because I settled on describing my work as dark and honest.) and who I liked (I thought Tongo Eisen Martin, but said Sylvia Plath)

An aside here: what do you mean when you ask someone: What kind of poetry do you write? Slam, I guess is an answer. Rhyming couplets is another. Where should I be filed? Who asks lyricists: what kind of lyrics do you write? Romantic or death metal?

He was so young. When he asked me how long I’d been writing, before I told him the mid 90’s, I looked him over and was pretty sure he wasn’t even born then.

Quickly though, he veered the conversation to women and girls. Asked about groupies, asked about women falling all over me after a reading. The balloon of my long denied heart popped having to confess myself a failure at that. I have no game, I said.

All poetry is is game. He said.

I shrugged. Sometimes, I feel more comfortable standing talking to a room full of strangers rather than speaking to just one.

He nodded.

The streets boiled and foamed with rain. The windshield melting as if I were having an acid trip. He turned off the main street we were on, then crazy zig zagged up this street, then down that one before telling me he was from Los Angeles and using Waze.

Then he said: Its all about confidence. You can have the words, but if you’re lacking the confidence behind them…

I nodded. I thought of how weird and lonely it had been for me over the years. Somehow I could move a room to standing ovation and still walk home quietly alone.

And though there were other routes Waze could have taken, we followed the street I’d grown up on. It was dark and wet and out of focus, but there was my old school, the grocery store, the old clapboard house that looked like it should have been demolished in the 70’s now having outlasted most of my family. Finally, there was my former house which was now dark and fenced and no longer recognized me or awaited me with the porch light flaring. I didn’t turn towards it to gawk, either. It was an ex- I had no conversation for.

My driver, though… Why was this like therapy? Him agreeing and saying: I should charge by the mile.

He asked if he could vape, cracked his window and went on.

He considered one-night stands about as good as any relationship. Better, maybe. Said collecting No’s is not a deterrent from continuing to move to a Yes, 7 or 10 people down the line. Always be closing. His friend got really lucky on internet dates, he said.

I listened, wished I’d had a better story to share or even a better life at the house we’d passed. But this kid was vibrant and I liked him immediately. We talked like old friends right until he dropped me off at the bookstore. I shook his hand and swallowed my next line: See you later…, realizing I wouldn’t as he was just a friendly stranger.

***
If you’re going anywhere on a stormy night, you may as well go to a poetry reading at a bookstore. Bottles of wine, sliced cheese, bowl of tangelos. Thought I was going to be late but I wasn’t.

The one other reader to be featured that night whom I was really looking forward to seeing– since he was my cousin, kinda — would be a no show. There were three other readers, two women– one older, polished. The other young and inventive. A bearded dude, then me. I read two new poems, one about an three month old olive which I still had in my pocket like a worry stone, then a longer poem about a woman here in the office who died late last year and who apparently I never expected to be missing as much as I did.

I was genuinely surprised to see one of my friends standing in back of the bookstore, listening. I’d forgotten I’d even told him about the reading. Another friend whom I ran into around Christmas kept her promise to show up and she brought her mother who lived several blocks away.

But no, there weren’t many single women there, there weren’t any young women there except for one of the features. Mostly it was older people and of them, dudes. I sold two books. The bearded writer who also featured introduced me to his husband. We three chatted afterwards about writing about nature. I showed them the dried olive I still had.

An older man whom I knew years ago– longer than that– circled back to me after the reading and offered a ride. He was taking home the young woman who also read and who happened to live one freeway exit past my building. The three of us walked to his car. He passed us copies of the lyrical poem he would have read if the night were an open mic and recited some of it. Despite offering us rides, he insisted on paying for our chapbooks, because as poets what else do we have. He’s 77 now, he said. He’s not of age to be argued with. Our price was to listen to his poem and his compulsory chat about politics: drugs, war and the CIA.

He dropped me off at my building and despite having not seen him in several years, he told me he loved me. I told him the same. He and the woman were pulling off for the freeway as I was closing the door.

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The continuously awesome journal Eleven Eleven has published three familiar poems which are up and available for your critique. Its a consistently gorgeous journal and website I’ve admired for long time. Its an honor to get in with so many other strong artists.

I went to an open mic last week, and an old friend asked what my writing goals were this year. I’m pretty simple; send out more stuff to get published, (which means, you know, I have to keep writing) wrestle with the octopus arms of my manuscript, and apply for some writing retreats. A retreat with purpose will do me much better than just staying home where I fall into a black hole and no work gets done. But this is a good motivator and great omen for the forthcoming year.