Posts Tagged ‘a poetry reading’

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?

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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.

ambiance by bonnie elliott

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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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…

Kid, This Ain't Your Night

I stood on the train platform feeling desperately sad, anxious and lonesome. It was nearing 10pm and from where I stood, it would be a full 90 minute commute back to my door thanks to getting to my last connecting bus stop five minutes early.

I’d felt like I wasted my time and evening. In truth, I hadn’t. But standing there wanting desperately to be home in bed, I remembered something I’d said to a friend several months prior after she complained about a reading she’d given that I attended. In that case, I felt she did a great job, but she saw the evening differently and was percolating with a remorse similar to what I felt on that train platform last night. I asked her: How do you want to be paid? I don’t mean in terms of money, because in practicing poetry as an art, there isn’t much if any money to tap into. Its possible– One month I paid rent just from representing poems on stage. But if money remains an elusive goal as a poet… what do you want in exchange for your poems? Beyond the writing filling your heart… How do you want to be paid?

***

The venue was a new African themed restaurant in a neighborhood I knew well. The host contacted me through Facebook and was kind and respectful and I wanted to be good and make him feel like reaching out to me was worth it. It was a reading I looked forward to up until I walked into the room. It was a corner restaurant, huge and beautiful with large bay windows. There were three 10-foot long communal tables made of dark wood centered in the room. Huge tropical plants like security screens in two of the four major corners. The open kitchen with its short bar/register and stools to the left as you enter looked like a clean science lab. I circled around to a small table in back over-looking the entire room. It was filled with people, all eating from bowls or rectangular plates, drinking red wine from short water glasses. There were a few children scattered politely about and the clientele was diverse. Older white people, middle aged Latino kitchen staff, young black women.

All my contacts had been via email and I hadn’t met anyone. At the tiny stage where a dj played, a man who I assumed was one of the people who reached out to me (and wasn’t) stood on stage with his back to the room, scrolling through his phone. I saw a woman in a elegantly form fitting black dress floating back and forth. I finally approached her.

Have you met the other poets? She asked. She was model gorgeous. I followed her as she approached three people, none of whom were friendly beyond the warm softness of their hands. The first dude was this bald mountainous brother in a three piece gray suit. He greeted me quickly and just as quick swung back around to whatever he was drinking/ eating/ saying to the man next to him. The hostess, a truly beautiful sister sitting at a table with her relative, took my hand at our intro but her eyes never saw me. How she turned towards me without using her face, gave me her palm, and kept her eyes pointed away from me through our hellos. The last woman was one whom I recognized. She was warm and remembered me, but our chat was truncated. She sat with someone and I left them to it. I regretted coming alone and retreated back to my table with a glass of water and a book to read until the room’s light became too soft.

The room gradually emptied and after a while, the woman who refused eye contact started the program and introduced me. Even as I predicted they’d call me first, I still wasn’t immediately prepared since she skipped through the intro but quick. When she introduced me, she didn’t read the three sentence bio I was asked to provide. I found it funny that instead of reading any of it she summarized it as: Our first poet read a bunch of places and been published and stuff… Then called me to the dj stage and got off.

The stage was small, about the size of a average family style table. I pulled up a chair with me to get my work together, then stood and considered the room. To my left and against the wall, the woman in the black dress was standing behind a stationary video camera set up high on a tripod. Then a man appeared, holding another smaller camera, and stood in front of me about an arm and a half’s length away.

My view from the stage; at my feet was one of the 10-foot long tables, empty except for chairs. To my left, were the audience of 7 to 10 people seated behind two other tables. Against the farthest wall facing me were 5 more people, and to my right another 5, including a child holding a cell phone and an older girl doing the same. The man with the hand held camera danced in front of me while I read, his camera lens floating and changing direction. Behind my right shoulder, they’d set up a soft key light, about four feet in diameter.

I’d been told the event was being recorded, which I didn’t mind. What surprised me was the second camera and how close he was. I wasn’t doing work I memorized– when I did look up into the lens, he was so close I could watch the iris rotating to focus.

I began reading. When I read poems on stage, the second and most important thing I’m doing is listening to you, Mr and Mrs Audience. You give me half of whatever it is I’m doing– your energy is necessary to feed me and I realized, THAT is my money, what I’m here for. Your Presence. I want you to be curious about what you’re hearing and invest in it.

1+1=3 (This poem)+(Your Presence)= This magical, un-nameable Third Thing.

This reading is not about me. Its about the energy exchange between us and what occurs when you meet me halfway. Even my reading from the page, when I look up, I’m touching base — I’m checking in. I can hear you, your grunts of approval or disapproval, your surprise, your laughter. Your indifference.

I want a level of trust and investment between us. That for the work I’m doing this stage, that you as audience are doing something, too. What I promise is to not waste your time. I don’t do a lot of introductions because the poem should explain itself. I promise your imagination a journey and to engage your intelligence. Even if the poem is supposed to be funny or is an abstract word painting, there’s still a seed in the words that will sprout if you are present to receive it.

I didn’t feel that presence. I’m insecure and wrong, of course. I sat and was greeted by a round of people. But more than hands, more than props, what I wanted was the older woman at the table to my left to look up at me. Just: meet my eyes. And she wouldn’t do it. Maybe this is how she listens, maybe she remained with me and that was her good ear. Perhaps the same could be said about the older couple across from her, too. I caught myself thinking, it didn’t matter that the white couple at the small table in back was with me, what mattered was the Filipino rapper next to them who kept his face down over his plate.

The rooms energetic weirdness, my having to open the reading, the isolating unfriendly-ness I felt, threw me. The last short funny poem I read, got no laughs and I stumbled, thinking: Did I fuck up? Did I lose you? I felt nervous and small and anxiously wanted to stop and get off.

The night went on. The room slowly emptied. Two youngsters rapped, another young brother sang solid and original songs, despite the camera man’s videotape running out and him shutting down his handheld camera mid song then sitting there, putting the performer in a much dimmer mood light. Three girls danced to his music. Later, the dude in the suit mounted the stage. He was fine if pretentious and arrogant, leisurely extending his time unconcerned with any time limit. No one challenged him. He bossed the room with his between poem banter. When he asked the audience if there were any introverts in the house, several people clapped and I thought– no true introvert would dare answer that. He said if you don’t like this next poem you don’t like my momma, cause this is her favorite. Then told us it was written about ten years ago. All of his work rhymed, was memorized and easy for him. And the poem he started well over his time limit, he forgot midway. Blaming his long day then asked us what he should do next before his brother crossed the room handing him a phone, letting him read another.

I left a few minutes before end of show. The long three-transfer trip across the bay. I got home feeling empty and tired. I wasn’t as bad and as off as I thought or felt, I’m sure. There’s just some nights I don’t know what to do with myself. These poems are all I got.

This Is About Time

Posted: November 2, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags:

time-travel

At the last minute, she sent me a text cancelling her previously offered ride to the gallery. But I was still able to get a timely bus and train to Berkeley. Too timely, in fact. I arrived exactly on time and didn’t want to be exactly on time. These readings NEVER start on time. And after spending the last month and a half watching email upon email pile up from the other readers organizing, drafting flyers, and so on, and knowing there was an open mic, there was no part of me that expected the reading to start at exactly 5:15. I took my time walking to the gallery from the train station and passed two venues where I’d spent many years developing my voice. La Pena and its neighbor The Starry Plough, maybe I hadn’t quite burned 10,000 hours between those two spaces, but its been close. I looked upon the buildings as if they were places I once lived. And as I walked past, both were alive and noisy. Undetermined Cultural Drumming thundered out of La Pena while a rock band slashed through a guitar riff at the Plough. I stopped at the corner to check on a missed call, (which was NOT the person who cancelled on me earlier) while a man walking two black Labrador retrievers approached. As he turned the corner, one of the dogs stopped as if I’d called her. I petted her gently and said, Its an honor to meet you.

She’s very friendly, the man said and gave me her name which slipped past my ear.

The other dog looked over at us, more impatient than jealous. He couldn’t understand why they’d stopped walking.

The man politely pulled the dog away. My missed call left no message and didn’t pick up when I rang back, so I walked on. I took the long way, an extra block, and perhaps because of the Standard time change, time seemed to slow to a crawl. I went to the gallery like a kid walking to the principals office.

Ten minutes late and of course the reading started on time.

The gallery has a long hallway lined with inexpensive overstock books, extra copies of random things from the university press. I entered quietly, well behind and to the right of the podium and the reader at the open mic, a woman doing a beautiful story involving her father and the ocean. Do not turn your back on the ocean, she said.

The gallery is a nice and large room ringed with paintings. There are five rows of folding chairs and at least one rack of padded theater seats. I saw my friend Steve in the back row and he waved me towards him. When he realized I came in alone, I saw and he touched my shoulder– I’ll give you a ride home — and I buckled down to listen.

Twenty people? Very attentive and astute. Considering all the activity in the neighborhood and it being a Sunday night, it was a good crowd. A man having stepped out of the 60’s in a long white beard and matching hair– a kind of hippie dandelion in a cowboy hat and well warn jeans suit– did a couple of beautiful and deeply funny poems. He read accompanied by a dude on a violin and a young woman who read the female part of a poem/dialogue he’d written.

The people on the open mic had to deal with the host, a man of articulate cruelty who, despite his easy smile, I do not wholly trust. After one person from the open mic read, he ran to the podium and said: I want to defer all our time to the features. If you ask Can I Read Another Poem, the answer is No. Read one poem, soak in your applause and get off. Be happy with that. Our next reader…

And that next reader, a woman whom I knew through my ex-girlfriend and who came because of the facebook announcement, got up and timidly read one poem– which was superb. I felt sorry that the host, whose name I know but in my mind is called Dracula, had said anything to intimidate her whether she wanted to share more or not.

I was one of four readers. The first read three monologues from a one woman show she’d been writing. She was a Spanish attorney who shared stories of having a ethnic name in the presence of dismissive White Collegues and another on finding a department store in Denmark that bore her name.

I read next. I’d been prepping and thinking about the reading all day, even while mopping the kitchen. When I went up to the podium, Dracula followed and circled behind me and whispered something — a Why Don’t You Do This statement– and instead of given him the response waiting in my heart, I said nothing and waited for him to sit back down. The reading went well and we took a break right after since there was no break after the open mic. People were very kind. I was politely cornered by a dude who reminded me of a reading series in San Francisco from 10 years ago, by my friend Steve and the aforementioned friend of my ex-girlfriend.

The final two readers impressed Steve and myself both. The first because her story took place at Burning Man which he attends every year. The last just because she was a superb wordsmith and wrote of places and things Steve knew well.

At night’s end, I ran after Steve who’d parked out front. He tossed a jacket into the backseat and collected the nest of reporter’s notebooks and cards and pens off the passenger seat then motioned for me to sit down.

We sat quietly at first. I halted my ego’s impulse to chat or be validated, process the night, or anything else.

He tossed his steering wheel lock onto the dashboard. He said: You know if you lose the key to this thing, AAA will not come out and help you? They consider breaking this thing Copyright infringement.

Then he said: You need to listen to this. He clicked on the cd.

At first, the car filled with a hissing like a gentle tickling of a cymbal. And on this hiss, a woman’s voice floated in the car like a ghost.

I want you to try and guess how old this recording is, he said.

The hiss was no instrument, it was the noise floor from an original mono recording. Her voice was otherworldly.

I’d say, early 1900’s??

1907, he said. When this was recorded China was under rule by an Emperess. And World War One was several years away. One! He underscored. The first one!

I can barely imagine that, I said.

I tried imagining anyway what families thrived, what architecture existed, when this recording was made only to be wiped from the face of the earth in less than a generation.

I’m not sure if its the recording or her that keeps slipping out of key. He said.

Once that song ended, another began, this from a male vocalist. He sang in Italian, his voice muscular and pure. Operatic.

This was entertainment only for the entitled, Steve said. Only the very wealthy in the world had access to this music. Emperors, kings.

I listened to the man singing, and imagined a man in a tuxedo standing next to a piano. In my mind the man is all belly and voice. I said to Steve: He’s like fine wine or $500 cheese.

Exactly, he said.

We stopped in front of my building. I wanted if but briefly to talk and asked him about his own reading from the night before. He barely wanted to talk about it and ran his hand down his face as if it were a mask he wanted to remove.

It was awful. He said and frowned.

His woman-friend wanted to read a poem in dedication to a regular member of that series who’d just passed away. At that open mic, the host was very short with her and demanded she not take so much time. It didn’t matter if it was in memorandum to anyone. The host chased her off the mic and it caused an argument and prickly feelings Steve was in no mind to recreate. He grimaced at even the memory.

It was very disappointing, he said. I hate being in the middle of arguments and disagreements and things like that. And there’s certainly no reason for it at a poetry event, you know.

Library

Library


The reading finished before 9:30. I left the bookstore and crossed the street. At the bus stop on the bench was a woman, whom I know, who bought a book off me but an hour before, whose house I’ve visited, and whose name I could not recall. Even now, thinking of that night last week, I still can’t pull it. I begrudgingly had to sign a chapbook over to her without writing her name and never policing my ego enough to just Ask.

I sat next to her, her with stark white hair, a swirling cloud bank beneath a small worn-leather cowboy hat.

You looking for the 18? She said.
It should be here in five minutes. I said and sat down.

The bookstore glowed brightly directly across the street from us. Its light mirroring off the black asphalt as if it were slick with water.

I asked what she’d been doing. She mentioned attending a salon where people who practice sculpture gathered in an artists back yard to work. She said she liked going and hanging out with them for a few hours and painting.

I asked if she ever practiced sculpture and she said no, it wasn’t her thing. Painting was. Her family, she said, was full of sick people. So she had to spend a lot of time alone and quiet. And painting was something she could engage with fully.

I forgot that’s what fueled my early days of poetry. Taking care of my mom and grandfather and after they’d passed out for sleep, I’d lay on the floor of my bedroom if too bored for tv and write. No weed, no alcohol, no friends. Just paper and pens.

As we sat talking about making art, what we really seemed to be talking about was permission. The permission to practice and keep practicing. What I felt compelled to tell her was how interested I was in visual art, even as I’m bad at it. I told her I’d been recently spending time coloring and confessed how years ago I took a visual art class only to quietly drop it after struggling to paint my first assignment: gray scale.

No one said it wasn’t good. I said it. I looked across the room and promptly fired myself.

She shook her head gently even as I felt like taking my heart out of my chest and crushing it in my hands.

Sounds like you had a bad teacher, she said. You don’t need to do it right, you can’t. You just need to keep going.

As she told her story I saw a small girl, drawing, painting at a huge table lit by the morning while her mother, sister were collapsed by illnesses in other rooms. I had no sister and had to motivate myself.

You don’t need teachers to make art. She said. Teachers sometimes get in the way because you end up creating things to please them when you should be making art to please yourself.

I couldn’t even recall whether the art teacher I had was male or female. I just remember leaving that class as if I was on fire.

Like you, she said. Your poetry. Who taught you to do that?

I looked back over to the bookstore we’d just left, where I was one of four people reading before a woman celebrating her newly published book. I sat quietly, thinking for a long time. Unable to speak. Who taught me to write poetry?? No one… Thinking of it, I realized it was a process. A building of something one brick, one moment, one lesson at a time. Until finally, something was just: THERE.

I don’t know, I said finally. My parents bought me a typewriter when I was in the sixth grade. I taught myself how to type, I said. I would record sit-coms off tv on a audio cassette and type a transcript to see how things were written, I guess. I don’t remember what happened or what was said that made them buy me a typewriter at that age. I certainly wasn’t trying to write poetry back then. I didn’t know what that was. Or cared.

The people at the reading we’d just left, all were artists, mostly writers. I knew several of them and despite my low bank account, bought books from two of them. Were any of them taught to be artists? Who taught the youngest poet there, taller than all of us, his unique blues-rap vocal style? I hugged him and told him how beautiful his voice was and he hugged me tighter. He seemed to have to bend well over me as if he were about to pick me up off the ground. Who taught the woman whose book we were celebrating to write poetry? Would she say anything other than the relationships that fucked her over, indignant anger over things beyond her control, the years of tears she had to swallow? Who sat me down and taught me… anything?

The bus finally appeared, though it took my eyes a long time to know it was the right one. We got on and I sat with her. The bus smelled awful, like fresh corn chips or soiled wet feet. A woman dug into a huge plastic bag on her belly, holding it as if it were an infant.

Less than eight blocks, the bus stopped across the street from the artists apartment. I’d been there once, and spent the afternoon in her kitchen writing with her sister, while she sat on the back porch and painted. We said our goodbyes, warmly. I felt awful, old. A week later and I still couldn’t remember her name.