For the first time, I went to New York to read for Cave Canem at their poetry series at The New School. The date I was given—2/20/20—felt auspicious and unavoidable. I was briefly concerned about being able to get time off work, but realized, broke and foolish or not, I’d quit my job over that reading.
I was also a bit intimidated. Often, one’s mind jumps forward into imagining an experience as a way of preparing oneself for it. All fantasies and projected insecurity. All vanity.
For example, I was invited to a reading last month that was local for me yet also weirdly isolating. It felt like I’d wandered into a closed set. The group of attendees, poets all knew one another but no one knew, or wanted to know, me. Few acknowledged or greeted me beforehand and barely anyone nodded my way afterwards., Everyone was distant and quiet even as we stood inches apart over the snack table. I couldn’t wait to escape, though when I did, one young Chinese poet came out after me and we talked on the corner while I awaited my Lyft. He alone nearly validated my reading and long commute. That odd and unfriendly reading was held in my backyard.
So, what to expect of NYC? I was mildly overwhelmed with the idea of being swallowed by a city. But my projections were foolish and unfounded. My plane landed a few scant hours before the reading. I lucked upon a nice hotel in Greenwich Village two blocks away from the venue, then walked over carrying my set list in hand.
There was no difference reading in New York versus home in San Francisco or any of its outlying cities, except the people felt warmer and more accepting. I found the building, went upstairs and immediately started snacking while meeting people I’d only known via email. The two other readers for the night appeared and we all chatted and I felt comfy and ready.
The poems I chose from the book were among poems I read often. I read them because of the energy within them, how they feel in my mouth and throat, and my memory of how people responded to them previously. Years before I read at a bar full of college age drunks in San Francisco. The host tapped me beforehand and said: ‘Start strong or you’ll lose them…” and I’ve tried maintaining that soft rule. And it wasn’t that I felt strong per se, a synonym for aggressive. I felt more confident and prepared.
The reading started, I was asked to open. It went well and felt good. Was nice to run the nervousness out of my system. But the room held me and all three of us in fact, in great love and attention and patience. I felt at home.
But this is about after the reading… people quietly filing out. Some people hanging out to chat and buy books. I stood with a couple of people as one young woman patiently waited for me. I kept wanting to acknowledge her, pull her closer, but she was unhurried and patient. And when finally she stepped forward, she asked me point blank about Grief. Writing about it, processing it as a poet. Carrying it as a human.
We stood and talked a long time, unbothered. I don’t think consciously about how much I’ve written regarding Grief, but it surprised me to be confronted over it and, more importantly, heard. Since it was just us, a lot came out of me I hadn’t expressed to another person so directly and raw. At no point did she find it necessary to get too personal or specific. Her grief is not mine, and mine is not hers, yet it’s all the same, isn’t it? Her questions ended. She left. And I walked out with the other poets, we all splitting off into our own stories for the rest of the night.
1) You’re right: every bagel I’ve had until I walked into Murray’s Bagels was bullshit. Every. Single. One. New York Style is ad copy. I totally understand now.
2) Took a surprisingly easy subway ride from my hotel to the MoMA where I contentedly spent the entire next day.
3) Homeless crazy dude pacing and monologuing amidst rush hour M Line commuters? Check.
4) How does one order a sandwich from a bodega? I’m still not sure. I felt sorry for myself in the middle of ordering an Italian Sub. Dark eyes. He genuinely looked at me as if I were a maniac. As if he just saw me drop down from a UFO. He offered Nothing in change. No understanding. No clarity. No friendliness. He very well could have just said: No. No sandwich for you. And I guess I would have had to take that. A good sandwich, though.
5) I felt as if I could live in New York. On a day when I should have been more touristy, I felt social anxiety. I explored my hotel’s neighborhood in Greenwich Village. I ended up in a tiny bookstore where they let me slowly investigate everything until I bought books from Staceyann Chin and Denis Johnson. The buildings, streets, were beautiful and I felt more at home here as a stranger than a visitor. I didn’t know what to do with myself but was happy. I meandered over for brunch at a Mexican restaurant then returned to my hotel and napped. I dreamed of my boss back in San Francisco, being on an elevator with her, her saddled with expensive shopping bags. It was the best and only conversation we’d had. I did not help her with those bags.
6) New York has lived in my consciousness my entire life, through movies, music, tv. My final ride through it towards the airport was early Sunday morning. The streets still as a glass of water, yet exhaling steam. I wondered about house parties, what Jamaica was like to live in. Houses passed and I remembered the theme to All In The Family and imagined the person who wrote it, playing it for the first time for the producers. I passed hospitals, castle sized tenement buildings, a stark grey cemetery. I didn’t get my hands too dirty, but the city was so easy to love. Next time, I thought.