Archive for May, 2017

Last night I itched to write something and had nothing to say. I’d fallen behind, not writing much of anything last month, set aside usually for National Poetry Writing. What I did do though, was rescue and edit work I’d paused on. Word Camera is a webpage that converts photographs into text. I had three word camera documents on my computer based on three found photographs. Last night I opened them and began re-editing, re-assembling the text in collage form. Like William S. Burroughs Cut Up method, though not as random with multiple sources. It was more myself in conversation with old, found text. I combed through the blocks of computerized text, randomly broke lines, then changed nouns and verbs, cutting entire sections, moving things around, adding an original line beneath the computer’s line. I mailed all that stuff to myself this morning to print at work where I plan to do more shuffling and editing and conversing.

William S. Burroughs was one of my earliest inspirations, one of the first writers I respected because of his voice.

I became introduced to Burroughs sometime in the mid 80’s through performance artist Laurie Anderson. Bill had a cameo in her film Home of the Brave which, due to good reviews, I saw on the big screen in Berkeley at an Old Repertory House. (I probably saw it on a double bill with the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense) Her music was white girl funky– curious and fun to my ear. Burroughs popped up briefly on her album Mister Heartbreak, doing vocals on Sharkey’s Night.

Eventually, during my digs through cd stacks at Rasputin and Amoeba I discovered an album, Dead City Radio. Burroughs had a hung over mid-western drawl that rattled and purred through reading his weird sexual sci-fi work. His writing was fun and dangerous and twisted. Though I’ve owned Naked Lunch for years, eventually saw Cronenberg’s film adaptation and listened to readings, I can’t read it cover to cover nor, really, any of his work. It comforts me having his books around, in the way I’m comforted by James Joyce’s Ulysses on my shelf, equally admired and mostly unread (Kate Bush once helped me eventually revisit the final Molly Bloom chapter, as did a BBC dramatization where an actress skipped through that meandering monologue while mid-way memorably squatting over a chamber pot). What connects me to him, what interests and draws me, is his voice and the sleepy confidence with which he reads. It is effortless and conversational. He is no orator. He is a philosopher with, as my former classmate once said, “the voice of them old junkies”. His was a voice I wanted to share with people, as if it were a song I liked. His being queer (Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That) didn’t bother me: “(The Mugwumps) secrete an addicting fluid from their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolism.” I’ve never seen him photographed with, speak of, acknowledge, nor even take any photos with any artists or writers of color and I’m okay with having never heard or known his thoughts on race. But I still adored the way he constructed sentences and told stories. And his voice. His voice simmers. His manner, his spoken word tempo, paired equally nice with producer Hal Wilner’s NBC Orchestra needle drop samples on Dead City Radio as it did with crunchy electronic hip hop from the brothers behind The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy for the album Spare Ass Annie. Dub him via reggae, put a Kurt Cobain guitar solo beneath him, it all works.

What did I learn from him? How language can be a toy– a building block. A Lego. That, and the motor of voice. His voice made me better appreciate words, language. In reading for audiences or recordings, he was never nervously rushed or panicked to get out his work. He never sounded eager to please anybody– he let the work and images speak for themselves. Yet one could hear a sly pride in his reading of his often disturbed and challenging work. He read slowly hypnotizing audiences following his dream-imagery and surreal juxtapositions.

Burroughs was a superb reader. There are not many writers who do their own work justice. Dylan Thomas was certainly a master. Even Sylvia Plath’s stately manner in her recorded versions of Daddy or Lady Lazarus for example, she reads poems with the precision and form of a runway model. You can nearly hear her shoulders being pushed back and her chin lifted as she reads. She sounds like a 1950’s movie star, falling between Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwick. Burroughs in turn sounds as if he’s seated at a kitchen table haloed in smoke with an eternal shot of gold liquid within reach. He sounds sleepy, slouched, slightly aggravated and familiar with evil. A wicked grandfather who might slip you some extra rock candy if you place nice and pull your pants down.

I’ve rarely written or spoken of writers who’ve inspired me. Perhaps I’ll do more of these. But while working last night, I thought of Burroughs Cutting up blocks of text to get new fresh meanings and lines, or to cull weird word pairings and find new ways of saying things. He might have really dug that word camera page. It was greatly helpful to me last night while feeling anxious but stuck and uninspired, stoned and slightly drunk.

Follow up on more regarding Burroughs Cut Up Method here.

On the train coming into Sacramento, I spent the time shuffling back and forth through my notebooks, trying to come up with something of value, something deep to say, to a room full of 200 strangers about writing.

And not just writing, but the hardest of all: Humor Writing.

I’ve been fortunate with much gratitude beyond all measure.  Over the years, I’ve sat with, worked with, learned from, listened to some amazingly deep and well educated people. Almost all of them teachers in one way or another. However, I myself am not a certified teacher and I don’t feel as if I know anything. Especially about being funny and talking to a room full of people about using Humor to write memoir. How did I get in this mess?

The ball started rolling years ago. I wrote a essay in list form, entitled A Brief History of My Failures With Women. The piece was written in concert with loneliness, as I walked back through some of my earliest memories attempting to track where and why I felt such a social misfit.  Partially inspired by the casually vivid storytelling of Spalding Gray, partly a random writing exercise during lunch at a new job where I had few friends, it was a piece I wrote just to hold my own hand.

Spaulding

But there came a point when I was asked to submit material for a journal.  At the time, that piece– written initially for my own eyes and daring– was all I had and was what I sent. I expected a perplexed No-Thank You in reply, but instead it was published and developed a life of its own. One of the teachers in Sacramento is still using it in her classes some 15 years after it was written. And here I was returning to Sacramento to read it for an audience and talk about it.

That it was initially embarrassing to’ve existed at all is one thing. But that it was seen as Funny was… well… let’s just say I started seeing a therapist just in time.

I’m no teacher. Did I nervously admit that already?  And I found myself unable to prep a speech on paper. I was thankful for attending some Storytelling-Without-Notes open mics, but those were about true stories and memory, not teachable lectures. So, I made some ‘notes’ regarding writing. I Googled, I stumbled through the library as if I were drunk. I copied this and wrote down that. But eventually I felt I had to let go and do the bulk of the speech off the top of my head. Not from any illusion of confidence, mind you.  But this: Most audiences (myself included) would rather you talk TO them rather than AT them from behind the gated security of a bunch of notecards. But what exactly could I say?

I was told to fill 30 minutes, which soothed me.  Time-wise, 30 minutes is nothing.  It takes 10 minutes to read the essay.  I could futz around for 10 minutes introducing the piece.  That’s twenty.  All I had to do was find a dignified way to stop.  (SPOILER: I didn’t, I just stopped)

My coworker at the office, without knowing what I was doing that weekend, gave me a book by David Sedaris that he said he found pants-pissingly funny. I brought the book with me on the trip as if it were a good luck charm or an alternative bible, though I never opened it. I thought: you can no more tell someone how to be funny than you can tell someone how to sing. Even I can occasionally freestyle a well-timed joke, but not on stage like a stand up. I’m no comedic genius. I couldn’t counter a heckler.  Whatever was funny in my original essay, wasn’t intended to be funny.  It was just the way I saw it, remembered it, thought about it.  I looked through some books on humor writing and quickly became overwhelmed.  I didn’t have the confidence to talk about being funny.  But I felt I could encourage people to write and keep going, and hopefully encourage them to bravely tell the truth in their work.

I was surprised to not be nervous.  I was more surprised the room stayed with me.  They listened.  A laugh or two emerged though never from the entire room.  The room lights remained on and I could see well into the back as some appeared to take notes.  I was strangely relieved to see one person get up to leave, though I think they eventually came back.  I got through my speech without humiliating myself.  Afterwards, several people asked good questions.  And though I did record it, I can’t bring myself to listen to that mp3.

Below is a list of notes I made.  They’re the framework holding up whatever it was I said.  Some of these I used, some I didn’t.

*I’m here due to a horrible mistake / here to admit all my failures
*How do you dare approach your story (esp. using humor)
*Your story has unexpected virture
*Be Honest / Be Encouraged that your story already speaks for someone else. We are all the same. Its in engaging our humanity (our weakness as much as our strengths) where our commonality intersects.
* Know Yourself: be okay with your story and experiences and tread lightly across it.
* Your story has weight only because you’re carrying it.
* You’re a survivor of your life, NOT a victim of your life
* Part of being a survivor is learning to let go– let go of your assumption of control
* Be vulnerable. Be your own punchline. Soften your intensity. Soften your attachment
* Tell the truth. This kind of writing (memoir) is a kind of journalism.
* Humor/Laughter isn’t always about humiliation but recognition. A laugh is a shocked response/ something abrupt and unexpected.
* Mel Brooks: Tragedy vs. Comedy. Tragedy is me falling into an open sewer. Comedy is YOU falling into an open sewer.
* Mark Twain: Get your facts first then you can distort them as much as you please.
* Even in non-humorous writing, humor can/should be found. Humor makes a way of approaching the difficult. The heaviness of the subject matter leads itself naturally to humor. SEE: Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes

I feared I would be late to the lounge for the 7pm reading, but as usual I was compulsively early. I sat at the end of the bar, not recognizing the friendly couple next to me until they spoke, we all but arriving together, and me knowing them from a reading in my neighborhood a month prior. He, too, was published in the journal we were both there to read for. I ordered a beer, though I wanted nothing except to get down to the work. They ordered food, getting bar food so expensive and modest they may as well had burned a twenty dollar bill, the smoke fulfilling the same hungers.

I followed them upstairs to the performance area, which I hadn’t known existed. A huge wood ballroom with a red carpeted stage and DJ Booth set up, several tea candle lit tall tables. A huge dance floor. A bar in the corner. Two tables set up with merch in the back. On the wall between the stage and bar, a youtube video of commercials from the 1970’s was projected. The room was too big for the people in it. As soon as we entered, the couple I was with was approached by another couple they both knew and that couple invited us to join them. The man from the second couple was introduced to me as a teacher, about to do intro to poetry class for high schoolers. Though listening to him as he talked …scared me for the sake of those kids.

By some miracle I wasn’t self conscious being the odd man out. The unpaired black thumb at the table. How I am usually the unpaired black thumb at any table. I joined them and remained cool. It didn’t take long before the event started, and the man I knew got up to read first. Then a cartoonist was invited onstage to talk about his work while his strips were projected onto the wall. I was next, climbed onto the stage and faced the room.

From the stage, the room was huge, nearly cavernous. I thought of every Backpack MC’s I’d ever seen who’d stalk the stage like a caged animal and demand the audience to come up front and be with her. Support her. Feel her. I wanted to encourage everyone to move towards me since the room felt so distant and distracted. It was quiet, or perhaps I just couldn’t hear anything. I looked best I could through the spotlight and saw a group of friends standing at a tall table. More people were crammed into the distant booths well across the room, almost too far for me to underhand throw a tennis ball. Even the pair of couples I sat with had shrank in the distance to the size of large paperclips. I read three poems. Could anyone hear? Am I doing this right? At the end of one poem there was a huge lag between my voice and any response. They clapped automatically after I stopped talking. I read a poem I thought was funny and it was greeted with stoic silence. This was the reading I’d been most looking forward to, yet it flamed out before anything sparked. I finished, came back to the table with the couples. One man gave me his fist, which I should have met mid-air with my chin. A woman leaned forward and asked: What were the little houses?

The little green houses? I asked, of the poems title.
Yeah.
Monopoly houses.
She leaned back and said, Oh.
And in the ensuing silence, I thought: Didn’t I explain that? It isn’t in the poem? Um, damn.

The night went on like that. So little energy so much time. It was as if there were a rushing river between the stage and audience and nothing could be heard over the noise of the moving water. What could I have done better? Differently?

When the event broke for music, the dj climbed the stage and got in position. I passed off my drink ticket, grabbed a complimentary journal and escaped out of there quickly, thanks to Lyft. The driver barely spoke to me. I tipped him well for leaving me alone.

The next reading the next night: I didn’t want to go. I nearly skipped it, but decided, stop being a hater, stop being negative. There could be a huge blessing in the middle of every room you avoid.

I tried to be late, and couldn’t. I burned time in the courtyard of the Asian Art Cultural Center. By the hour of 7, most of the venues were closed. A woman entertained her two toddlers, a couple of friends sat talking. Then I grabbed a bench at fountain stocked with a half dozen coi and tried to breathe. When I finally made it to the gallery, it felt quiet and warm. The audience sat zombied and waited while music played. I couldn’t immediately sit down and though I saw one person I wanted to say hello to, I instead looked at the art on the wall. The host came over and greeted me. I said all of nothing. I considered the art for a long time before the event finally started. Why did the room feel so… Heavy. Warm. Inactive. Narcoleptic. A toddler took over the back rows of the event, trying out non-sense language on a pre-teen girl who’d been cuddling her stuffed Pikachu doll. He touched it lovingly before the event started. The host tried to shake the room slightly, telling them its okay to move and speak as if this were church, though no one did.

I was introduced after a pastor blessed the room, then after a woman who dismissed herself as a poet– yet read beautiful little poems.

The crowd was larger than I expected, 25, 30 people I’d guess. I refused the mic though cameras were set up to record it. I used my voice to fill the space and read three poems.

What did I see? People were with me, with warm listening eyes. One or two actually smiled to the degree I thought they really heard what I was doing. But most, yeah, stared like zombies. I appreciated one woman to my left who listened actively. One bearded brother in back I seemed to mostly read to. He would have been cool talk with afterwards. I thought of the old David Letterman show, how he would keep his theater close to freezing, he once said because when its colder audiences are more active and lively. I went back to my seat, feeling guilty somehow. I regained my seat and the main event started.

It wasn’t late, it wasn’t quite 9, but I was so distracted and nervous, I had to leave. Two women flanked either side of the performance stage, and I knew they were waiting for a signal from the reader to dance. I awaited for the same signal, but ran out of patience, got up as to take another photo of the room, then wandered over to the bathroom.

When I left the bathroom, I left the gallery, its resonating silence reaching even out to the street. The sun had just set. Though my legs felt stiff and achy, I ran away from there pretty quickly, not totally clear as to what was wrong with me. Both readings in their own way were gorgeous ceremonies, if just church quiet. I paced the bus stop, nervous. If I didn’t want to be there, where did I want to be? And with whom?