Posts Tagged ‘performing’

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.


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


In the mid 90’s Saul Williams helped change the landscape of delivering and reciting poetry. In his own defense he’d prolly cite folks I’m overlooking as equally influencial as himself, but I make the statement because I saw the change take place first hand. The first live performance of his I saw was around the release of 1998’s Slam. He appeared on stage at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, a huge music hall packed to the rafters with young people trying to figure out how to write and express themselves as richly as he could. He was enthralling. And it wasn’t as if he had a huge, diverse body of work. But what was so special about him?

His voice as a writer/poet is wholly unique; he plays language as hip-hop/jazz fusion. Words and images bounce off one another in huge, intergalactic explosions of imagery and ideas. If people miss his abstract/painterly metaphors, they certainly remain hooked for his heartfelt, electric delivery. His writing samples history and philosophy in hip hop lyricism. He validated backpack MC’s and introduced them to performance poets and vice versa, crossfading audiences of both. You may not understand what is being said, but your third eye does. He’s a kind of conjurer who you’d think could manifest something out of thin air just from the way he whips his body and language through time and space.

I could not sit and read his work on the page. But I could listen to him for… ok, it would be hyperbole to say ‘hours’. A half hour after midnight in a packed room is more than enough.

Last week was my second time ever seeing him live. I did not buy a ticket and barely wanted to go. One of his opening acts called and said she put me on the guest list. I couldn’t say no. As happy as I would have been to stay home, I went anyway. A couple of blocks from the venue, she called and sullenly said: The show won’t start before 9:30. I was already more than an hour and half early.

Saul had been performing music for a while, and I thought the night would include his band, but I was wrong. The stage was set with a dj and some mics. This would be a superstar reading– akin to Bukowski or Beat readings from decades ago where it was just One Name reading to a packed room of dedicated followers. I was naturally one of the first to arrive, found a seat above the stage on the balcony. By the time the show got underway, the main floor beneath me was packed as a bag of marbles. The show that occurred was powerful in ways I’m not sure I can articulate.

A group of high school poets opened, performing two poems in unison. All eight members shouted their poems quickly– running through them not for meaning, but speed. The sound was overwhelming and as their elder, I’d say it was nice, but it didn’t leave me with anything. The kids hit the expected tropes on race and history and black pride, but their delivery made the poem sound as if they were repeating one long word with its letters crunched together. But they came, they killed, they got off stage. There ya go.

My friend who invited me is a storyteller and her performance grounded the energy in the room. She did an amazing long story-poem daringly about the Bible, religion and faith. The audience listened like a classroom, not a bunch of drunken revelers, and soberly received her. Her piece felt more like a sermon, and for many performers after her, that sense remained. A sense of confession, of being honest. I was nearly brought to tears by a performer from South Africa, Theobikile. A young brother, Donte Clark had a piece that started so quietly I wondered if he was stoned when he started. By the time he finished, his piece also was very sermon-like and the room caught emotional fire. Same said for the brother Amir who did some very strong pieces and then stopped his set, compelled to tell us a story about one of his older poems, Danger. That story was as good as his poems and I could have sat listening to him all night.

But Saul was the reason we were here. He came out on stage with no real fanfare, just a bag of old fashioned printed poems (on paper, unlike the two performers who I noted read from their cell phones placed on music stands). He said this was all new stuff and combed through his work, with old grandfather glasses and picked stuff out at random. We stayed with him and would have let him do anything for us. He stopped mid set to hug a woman in the front row, then told a cool story about how he met her.

It was a glorious night that I’m grateful I got to see. Didn’t realized the friend who invited me was gonna offer me a ride home after the show. I’d listened to Saul a solid half hour and thought, if I don’t take the next bus leaving in 10 minutes, I’d wait another hour or dig in for a taxi. I felt full and grateful. I told a stranger leaving before me, Make sure you write. I came home and did the same thing.

man with flock

Its been years since I’d taken the train to Sacramento. I don’t exactly remember the last trip I made in the name of my biological family that still lives there. I didn’t belong there.  My birth-mother was right in giving me up and never looking back.

For this trip, I bought my first cane. My knee had been loud and unpredictable for two weeks. Deeply pained and random. I needed help. I bought the cane at W—g—-ns and getting off the train in Sac, when they offered a shuttle cart to the door of the station, I took it.

I came to Sacramento because my friend has been running a poetry series here for 15 years and this weekend was its anniversary. For 1/5th of a minute that morning, I thought to call and cancel… but: what else would I be doing the rest of the weekend?

I arrived at the theater, yet instead of pushing my way past the dozen women already in line, I stood outside in line with them. A wind began and the sun set and it was pleasant. I watched as gorgeous woman after woman, groups of female friends, daughters and mothers, came up and got in line behind me. No one paid me any mind.  I have no Game.  What dudes I did see were part of the show and ducked inside. Everyone, except me, was dressed up, at least ‘after church’ nice. And I was the only one with a drug store cane.

They let us in and I was led backstage to the dressing room. I knew Shawn from the Bay Area. A couple of faces I remembered from my last visit which was… a while ago.  A woman came in a couple of times to put supplies in the bathroom.  The guys entered and exited and joked, changed, and capped on one another’s athletic Shoe Game or lack thereof. I watched and listened and laughed.

The theater was full and the show ran smoothly though I saw little of it. I leaned against the wall stage right and watched one performer from the wings, but couldn’t clearly hear him. Plus: standing for a long period wasn’t going to work for me. I went back in the dressing room with Shawn and caught up over the couple of years I hadn’t genuinely been able to talk with him.

Truthfully: I was told when I was going on. Right after the comics, she said. When you hear everybody laughing, you’re next, she said.

She said: you’re in a set with two ladies. When you do your piece at the mic, don’t leave the stage, ok? Just step back a couple of steps and the next performer will go up, then another and you’ll go back and do one short piece, then you can walk off.

Sounded fine by me. But because of time, there would be no second round.

I heard laughter in the auditorium, but wasn’t thinking. No one came to the door unless it was another brother to hang out or crack jokes. But suddenly, from afar I heard my name called. I reached into the backpack at my feet, grabbed some papers, and then the door opened and I popped up and went out on stage.

I don’t have stage fright. Not really. I knew what I wanted to do and was ready. But: I walked out seeing nothing except a modest shadows of people in the room.  And there was great stillness.  It had already been a long night, at the 90 minute mark of a show that had started about 20 minutes late. But when I walked out on stage I was met with… um…

Nothing. The audience had already applauded after she said my name then disappeared to get me. I introduced my poem which I’d written after Maya Angelou’s passing earlier this year. Had no one in the room heard of Maya Angelou? That they didn’t care is one thing… But I called the Dr.’s name and the audience sat and waited, nary a grunt of recognition.

And then there’s this. Dr. Angelou sampled a lot of gospel in her performances, call backs to spirituals and whatnot. I’m no singer, but I’m also not very intimidated to try if something feels necessary. Plus: I wasn’t going to, ahem, ‘sing’ very long. I only wanted to ground the piece with music.

Here’s the original of the song I attempted:

So I do the poem. I can hear myself very clearly. I don’t sound horrible or laughable, though I wouldn’t have minded being snickered at. I hit the poem, to my ear, correctly– it sounds and moves well. But:

No laughs, but no support either.  The audience wasn’t feeling it. I finished to a smattering of applause, stepped back as instructed and the hostess was there to greet me. (After her bullying the crowd to applaud a little louder…)

Because the show was running so long, the three of us who read didn’t do a second round. I was okay with that. I was okay with travelling a hundred and change in miles to do one poem for this show. I guess I was also okay with doing a poem that fell over like a lead balloon.

I got off stage and thought: I’m not cute, like the others. I was in a knit short sleeve shirt, jeans instead of a suit, which I don’t own. I’m no longer young, that’s for sure. I wasn’t styling either, I was just There. Yet the audience seemed to stare through me.

What did I do wrong? No flavor? My approach to the mic? Did I not introduce the poem correctly? Was my timing off? I already said I wasn’t a singer– but was it really that bad?

It was near the end of the show. I watched the remaining performers. Then it was over and everyone was leaving to gradually make it over to the afterparty two blocks away. I certainly wasn’t dancing, and I recently learned I am an angry, awful drunk so drinking would be minimal. I neglected to even secure a ride to the club, assuming I could limp two blocks in the cool night. Plus: I was hoping I could still crash on my friends couch until morning.

I was last to emerge from backstage, most of the audience having already emptied to the lobby. One woman snapped photographs of Shawn and another poet. I walked up the aisle, looking across the room and saw two people, one who “Made Me Think” of one relative and another who “Made Me Think” of someone else. Both family members I’ve had to let go of. It took me a minute of staring at them before they dissolved into strangers. Why, of all people, did I hallucinate seeing them? Lonesome. Starved for support I wasn’t getting.  I limped to the lobby.

I was a nobody. The night was over and I, with my bad knee, was going to have to negotiate myself until the next morning. I wandered out into the lobby, waddling behind much older women. One dude, standing near the door as I came up, nodded, said he liked my poem– but said in the way of Being Nice.  I walked out to the sidewalk and stood amongst a throng of females and no one saw me. Any one whose eyes swept across me, kept going. Even if I were on fire, no one would approach me to even ask for a light. I looked for the host whose couch I thought I was going to sleep on that night, but didn’t see him. The audience stopped some of the brothers who’d performed and chatted them up. One woman asked why one man changed his bright red shoes.  The brothers were all handsome, young. I was not.

I saw Shawn emerge from the theater, his backpack on and my heart leapt.  He quietly angled through the crowd and something in me told me to follow him and I did, until a group of women stopped him to praise his performance and poems.  He chatted briefly and handed them flyers for his series back in Oakland. Then, he saw me. I asked if he was heading back to the bay that night and if he would drop me off. He said: Come on.

I could end here or on the long conversation we had during the ride. Our talk about racism, about Michael Brown and the situation in Ferguson. It branched into his son, Django Unchained, Fox News, 12 Years A Slave, Austin, Texas and racists in flatbed trucks. I could say it was the longest and most involved conversation I’ve had with him, irrespective all the years we’ve known one another. I could also say his ride saved my knee: I didn’t have to wait longer than 10 minutes for either of my two remaining connnections home, despite it being well after midnight on a Saturday.

But instead, I want to say this.

Poetry, without love, is dead. Without love– in the nucleus of the poem or within the poets voice/heart–  my poetry, is kind of irrelevant.  Its what’s missing in my work.  During the train ride there, I wanted to write.  But without loving support, a crew of people, a family, a love even for what I’m doing, what was I writing?   And to whom?  On the train, I began writing about my father– who’s been dead for 20 years.  Time has crash landed me on a middle aged life without any family or friends. I didn’t expect that.  I didn’t think I’d become That Dude.  Once, I would have been deeply angered by the world’s flagrant racism, sexism, character assassinations of the dead in the news…  The rows of black men laying dead in the street, their families mournful and helpless– Yet, with no nephews, brothers, sons of my own?  Disjointed empathy.  On my own, my anger felt impotent.  I stood on stage, my words and the darkness, and felt at a loss. Nothing bounced back from the void.  Void as in: My viewpoint from the stage.  But is the void, me?  I didn’t want to read poems, I wanted to be held. But where was any love for me.  I miss what family I knew and had. And maybe I miss my anger, too. But standing on stage in the dark this weekend, I thought, maybe I can’t do this anymore. I’m talking to myself, doing this…writing and performing poems… and for what reason?

I made it home, safely, quietly.  No one waiting for me, rooting for me or missing me while I was gone.