Archive for October, 2017


The summer I was due back in school as a sophomore, I decided to change the game and get a Jheri curl.

That particular summer, nothing was natural. All my cousins, all the bus drivers… everybody from the ministerial staff at church to the gangbangers smoking on the corner just outside, had these dripping wet afros infused with greasy vinyl bands of hair corkscrewing down to the scalp. The Jheri curl was everywhere. Named after its hairdresser-inventor, Jheri Redding, the hairstyle was a perm, a two part chemical relaxer that after softening hair would curl it. To top it off, my mom was a hairdresser who kept a steady stream of customers running through our kitchen to get permed up. (Aside: This cost her the skin on her fingers for a while. They would flake and swell resembling fat caterpillars until the fad, and her desire to engage the hours long process, faded)

Everyone I knew it seemed had swampy black hair that left slug-like trails from wherever the wearer sat. Everybody! The basketball players at the park, the young men and women in my kitchen … from the globally worshipped Michael Jackson to the scowling Ice Cube whose St. Ides and Kill at Will posters I kept on my wall that year. Everybody was dripping grease and cool as an R&B album cover.

And all I had was dry black naps full of dandruff. I couldn’t get laid if I was fresh mixed concrete. I had to get a Jheri curl. Right Now.

My mom was fine with this. She just didn’t want to do the work since she had real paying customers every weekend. So she asked cousin Susie whom she anointed and approved of, to come in one Saturday and work on me. All I was asked to do was not wash my hair or scratch it.

Which was the first and immediate problem. Did I mention I had dandruff? Is that still a thing? I remember combing my hair while bent over a newspaper watching the gray snowfall pile up. I had acne, sure, but it wasn’t as bad as my wickedly dry scalp, for which pomades and Head and Shoulders barely helped. The afternoon I was to get my hair done, I went down to Pay N’ Save and bought a box of relaxer. My head felt as dry as if it could crumble and blow away in a steady wind, like the leftover from a campfire. Not to mention how it itched. But nonetheless!! I was undaunted! I was finally going to be cool and get straight A’s in pussy all that next year!

So for the first time, I entered my own kitchen sanctuary (which I usually avoided) as a customer! While my mom worked on one old lady, then another, and maybe one after that… Susie began pouring chemicals through my hair, soaking my head in something…

Something akin to fire. Something like agent orange. My entire head burned. The slow, smoldering sensation made my skin feel as if were made of burning embers moving in waves. I closed my eyes to keep tears from dropping. However dry my scalp was, the chemicals were doing the exact opposite of helping. I squeezed my hands, digging my fingers into my thigh. The ladies came in and left and everybody was admiring and curious and smiled while I suffered and gritted my teeth and did everything except scream stop. It took the bulk of the afternoon for Susie to finish.

And when I was free, my hair was placed in rollers and the entire thing covered in plastic. I had just had surgery. My mom gave me her prescription Tylenol’s, thanked and paid Susie, and I went back to my room to recover.

I burned, I hurt. My entire head smoldered and ached. I don’t remember the rest of that night. Did I eat anything beyond soup and codeine? Could I have chewed? All I remember was sitting up in bed with my head bandaged in plastic while searching for some comfort and solace in television.

I turned to Channel 26 which on weekends showed an hour of music videos hosted by a local radio DJ. I sat staring coolly at the television. Pain gradually eased.

And then– the DJ announced the next music video.

A song called Wuthering Heights, he said. By Kate Bush, he said.

Fade up on a woman in double image, rising from an arc of rainbow light. A piano begins like misting rain, as if its being gently tickled as opposed to played. The woman on screen wears a white dress, not as a ghost or angel even but more like a muse, a low end goddess who shyly demurs too much fuss or attention. Her hair is long and dark, hanging over her shoulders. She mimes, she gestures before a black background. Unlike the other videos I’d seen, this is without groupies, dancers, a band, or a set. The director doesn’t even mix crazy colors into the unused background. Its just her dancing alone, video effects echoing her movements so that her body smears across the screen and she appears to dance duet with herself. This video cost less than $20 to make and I was riveted.

It was her voice, mostly. Her voice froze me in place, stopped time. Her voice is tip-toe high and tinny, an unreachable bird drifting and sliding between thermals. Her vocal dips and moves, dancing as she dances, gesturing as she gestures drawing out words and phrases, sending her voice up cheerily then back down to a kind of longing wistfulness. The song is dramatic and sweet and busy. The song sounds so ornate and complicated– like the show stopper for some Broadway musical. The bridge, its me, Kathy, I’ve come home and I’m so cold– let me in your window, Heathcliff— is desperate and mournful and full of longing. Every lonesome twitch I’d ever felt is articulated in her voice, with that line.

It was hypnotic and the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. This wasn’t the same cheese from the 70’s songs I’d give an ear to. This wasn’t Melissa Manchester or Debbie Boone. This was someone who took a wholly different approach to songwriting than I’d experienced. It sounded mature and classical. I’d be asked to read Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for school maybe two years later, but I’d never finish it. I made it far as the hounds and gave up, dropping my first high school English class out of bitterness towards a teacher I loathed. But I didn’t need that book. I preferred Kate Bush summarizing the novel leaving me the image of a woman waiting for her lover and dancing until he responds.

The song, her voice, saved me. Healed me. It was a balm to my ear and heart and I fell immediately in love and passed out for sleep.

That next morning, I woke up, removed my plastic headwrap, unhooked the curlers, looked at my new hair, and cried. It was horrible. More specific, it wasn’t Me. I no longer recognized myself when I looked in the mirror– not that I was all that excited beforehand, but now, with this, it was All Bad.

My mother, calmly: If you want to keep your hair from falling out, go massage some mayonnaise in your hair and wait a few minutes before shampooing it out.

By the time Susie arrived to see her work from the previous afternoon, I was already combing my freshly shampooed hair out. That curl didn’t make a full 12 hours. She stopped talking to me. I mean, she was paid… but for a long while after she would still look at me and sneer.

So: I went to school that next day, Monday, with a very soft and kinda curly Afro. My scalp, of what I could see of it, looked burned in patches, but it was alright. I would still have dandruff for a while, but it eventually eased up.

I remained a virgin. A nappy virgin at that.

(Well, not nappy– the chemicals completely changed the quality of my hair for years, softening it, leaving it wavy)

And I became a very committed Kate Bush fan. A couple of years later she’d release The Whole Story, her greatest hits compilation with a new vocal on Wuthering Heights, her voice having matured and come down an octave or two, but the song still offered a huge, cinematic sweep of sound. More years later and I found her box set of all her albums in a local record shop as an import from Japan and paid $200 without complaining.

I did not go to England for her month-long residency in 2014 at the Hammersmith Apollo. The wait for any video footage (none) or her eventual live album was agonizing.

She’s not an artist I can easily pass on to my friends. She’s not soulful. She’s not funky. She’s a dancer, certainly, but doesn’t care what a dance remix is. I wish she’d play more with unique sounds and different producers, and come up on more experimental dance tracks like this. But she’s a reserved, proper Englishwoman who’d sooner work with Chopin than Pharrell. Sooner drink tea than go Unplugged. She recorded with Prince, at least, so there’s that. And that live album is a stunner.

And all that is to say: when I heard Kate was nominated for this years class in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, over every other alum and nominee over the years, Prince, Tupac, Radiohead or Name Somebody, I realized I will go to Ohio to visit the museum there. After what she’s done for my spirit, I feel as if I owe her.

My friend and I met as if on cue at the convergence of the taco trucks. He attends Fridays at the Oakland Museum regularly on his way home from work and agreed to meet when I told him about the poetry reading. We made a brief lap through the modest community of neighbors here at evening’s picnic, on the city’s first cool Friday night. I told him finally, “I went through therapy recently. And the doctor pointed out to me I have social anxiety.”

My unsurprised friend: Well, yeah. I see that totally. You don’t mingle. He said. His mention of the word mingle chilled me. I barely looked up at the tiered residents of Oakland munching on international food while hip hop played from the DJ booth and people danced with children.

He wanted to eat and I couldn’t. I wanted to read first and get it over with. We walked around again but nothing screamed out to either of us. The ice cream taco truck was doing zero business and looked dark. Then, we ran into Tongo, the main feature for the night, walking up the street carrying books to sell: “Have you heard the good news,” he said. My friend knew his name very well by then and was there to hear him do his thing live. We all walked towards the amphitheater, a small stage loaded with a drum set and mics. We greeted the producer for the evening and met the third poet, a woman neither of us knew who was performing with us. She came armed with a cadre of friends who stood in a circle across the courtyard.

It relived me to be asked to go first. Being first is a kind of thankless warm up — a luring of the audience away from the music and conversation and asking them for a different mindset. Didn’t the producer say this was a kind of experiment, a first time of using poetry here and doing so in association with a forthcoming exhibit? Most audiences click in with attention by the second speaker. I mounted the stage.

The exhibit we were loosely connected to was Question Bridge, and I thought to bring poems written from meaningful, personal questions and their hard answers. No matter what, the 10 minute collection of poems I chose, were the only poems that felt right and I wanted to do them. They were poems about and around my father. They were personal.

And reading them in that space made me feel unexpectedly raw and exposed. At first, the concrete courtyard at the foot of the stage was busy with dancers, mostly guardians and their children. When the music stopped, some of the children remained, looking confused from the sudden stop or to just stare at the activity and people. Somehow, I couldn’t look past the kids into the audience, tiered stairs full of people sitting, eating, dating, and — staring at me. I felt as if I were interrupting something. I felt self-conscious as all the people here had been asked to cease what they were doing and listen.

And what did I give them? A poem about racism and rights. Conversations about my dead father… Whom I suddenly began missing what with the children at my feet and women with babies tethered to their backs. Mid-reading, I fell into a deep, sticky loneliness. I looked up at the woman who was reading second, standing with her friends, watching me solemnly. I gazed quickly up at the audience, mostly seeing bright white containers. I relaxed and read the poems. Get to the end, I thought.

But from stage I felt nervous as if I’d resurrected my father through language. I felt awkward: I shouldn’t have read such serious work while people are here having a good time. I was embarrassed as if I’d just opened my shirt and flashed my heart, to blank faces staring back. I ended, climbed down from the stage, and left quickly. The friend I met, I ghosted, leaving him behind somewhere in the audience. I couldn’t say goodbye. He was going to stay for the remainder of the show, I couldn’t. I didn’t want people to see me. I wanted to turn invisible. I disappeared, climbing the backstairs and exiting at the farthest end of the museum towards the last taco trucks. I kept my head down and almost got away until strangers stopped me. Three people, including a woman swaddling a baby. They asked if I was just on stage. I said yes, guiltily. They thanked me, I acknowledged the baby, smiled, then ran to the bus stop.

The previous public reading before this, in similar circumstances, was one I looked forward to. White Noise – Black Masks was an exhibit at the UC Berkeley Museum, curated by a longtime friend, Marvin White. Five poets read standing in a circle of speakers on the floor emitting a white noise that, during the reading, gets progressively louder drowning out or erasing the poets work and voice while asking the audience to grasp meaning for themselves.

The weirdness of that reading — the tension between artist, voice, and audience, was invigorating in ways I’m still processing. A new intimacy emerged with my effort to be heard over the white noise and the audiences efforts to hear me or let it go. One poet ended the evening in a way whose memory I will take to my grave. How she demanded to be heard! –physically– while tugging emotionally at the audience… During the Question/Answer segment, the white noise continued so questions were partially obliterated and their answers may not have matched.

The event made me consider all my years as a poet: Where was my voice in the midst of the white noise in my head and what was it trying to tell me? It was okay for me to lose my voice in context of that night, in practice of art. It was a gamesman-like challenge. There is always with poetry a desire to cut through the noise in the minds of the audience, or reader. Poetry aims to gently, lovingly, offer a unique perspective or understanding of life and experience. It is the flower that sprouts from the ground at a crime scene. It aims to underscore what beauty gets lost in our regular failure to pay attention to the world.

But what of my own personal noise and issues? In sharing poetry there is a giving of the artists self that applause does not always compensate or satiate. For whatever I once expected, I was fine with just being heard. It was good therapy for me to be present and observant and to write through my experience, however dispiriting it was. But there remains the hole or wound from which any work was originally excavated. The trick is to not confuse your self with the wound or not comfortably identify as a victim. Victimhood is seductive and deadly. You are not your story but rather the vessel through which stories fall and are collected. Draw from those stories to create work and then ruthlessly let them go or risk being drowned by the weight.

(SPOILER: I have not let everything go. I still carry residual weight. I flounder, splash water, but am still afloat)

Thus all I want is to be heard. So much of my life feels meaningless– having no family, no place to call home or have my emotional battery recharged. There is no place, beyond my quiet apartment, where I feel safe and wanted. I emerge to share poems with the world and all I want is to be held in attention. If no arms are available, then I wish to be held with eyes and hearts. Its difficult in some instances to truly feel connection with a room– the distraction of a noisy bar, the competition of the outdoors. My body stands reading the work, while my mind wishes I were at a table with a lover, happily ignoring the background noise and navel gazing cries of poets.

But its not the rooms responsibility to connect, its mine. Its my responsibility to befriend the entire space, even and especially as every square inch of my body wants to run and hide. That conflict, that push pull, is agony. It feels counter-intuitive to push through fear and find love. Love is all I’ve wanted and fear is all I’ve had.

For example, Saturday night, after ghosting the museum, I was to appear on Pirate Radio in San Francisco with a couple of other artists. But there was a huge misunderstanding I won’t untangle here. Just to say: the event was cancelled and the main feature invited us to the bar across the street and consolation beers since we were kicked out of the radio station due to scheduling problems.

I sat in a circle of a dozen people in a comfortable bar. After apologies, drinks were passed out, mostly beers and tonic waters. And we settled into a sharing circle, gathering closer to hear over the room noise, the echoing conversations and jukebox.

The people, mostly women, were beautiful, kind, warm, accepting. I was desperate to be out of there. Since I didn’t have to ‘work’, behind the anonymity of the mic, then I felt like I was wasting my time. I was in a hurry to get back to my aloneness. I didn’t want to read poems in the bar, even as it offered a guaranteed audience that wanted them. I wasn’t very sociable, either. I could barely hear and physically seemed to dissolve into the couch. This should have been the entire point of being a poet– to stop everything and present my heart on a table in a bar to be examined by strangers. To be in a bar! To be in supportive community! To make a reading happen when another was cancelled! I should have felt love and encouragement, I should have felt that this audience of young women is the entire purpose of the evening, a gift offered by the universe. The radio was never meant to play a part of the evening– THIS was the evening, THIS was the gathering to be part of.

But I felt so alone in that circle. So uncomfortable and elsewhere. Despite the crowd, there was just me and the explosive white noise in my head, drowning out my own prayers for change, for love, for acceptance, for a different paradigm. A white noise so loud, I couldn’t hear or see what surrounded me and smiled: Love bursts in great abundance all around. Once you stop gazing at your pain, you can see it.