Posts Tagged ‘poetry reading’

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.

kpfa small

I was the first to arrive at the venue Saturday night for the reading. The venue is a nurturing writing space for women in East Oakland, where my friend A_____ volunteers. If you hadn’t been to the place before nor had the facebook invite, there’s no way even the next door neighbors would know anything was going on here tonight. The question though, if they had known, would they’ve showed up anyway?

A simple screen door was propped against the entrance, primarily to keep the cat in. I slid it open and stepped in. The only eyes on me were of the cat from beneath a curtain a few feet behind the door, staring me down with grave suspicion. I stepped in and announced Hello. The voices I heard were all well in the back of the house. The lobby I’d entered into was a business/art space: a simple glass cabinet to the immediate right, a curtained off storage room facing the door (where the cat hid) and just above that was a apparent sleeping loft accessible only by ladder. The main room was a nice sized, ringed with hand drawn art and small paintings, then a small bookshelf on the wall beneath the loft. There were chairs and two sofas lined against the walls. I looked down and saw a very expensive video camera sitting alone on the chairs with a microphone on a pole. Daring and assumptive to leave it there, I thought.

I also thought to walk down the shotgun hallway towards the back kitchen from where the voices emerged, but wasn’t that interested. At the end of the hall, the closed door on the bathroom opened and A_____ stood there enamored to the mirror. She was in a floral skirt and fishnet stockings, her hair braided and extended into twist donut, angled on her head like a sailor’s cap. She came down the hallway to greet me and fiddle nervously with various things; her laptop, the chair placement, then making sure the cat couldn’t easily escape. More women began to enter the space and hover and talk. I recognized one attendee and we chatted warmly for a while. Then R______ showed and walked around quietly, her head down mostly. When I greeted her she kinda grunted then sat back down. Three videographers appeared, all in black and better to vanish into the background, my dear. The curly haired producer handed out release forms which warmed my heart — with the prevalence and arrogance of reality tv I wondered if producers even bothered with releases anymore. One person in black picked up the camera and another the audio pole. They disappeared into the background like unhelpful waiters shoving platters of nothing into your chest and mouth.

The room shrank as more people appeared and I didn’t feel any anxiety, which was good and comforting. I didn’t even feel as allergic of the cats as I did my first time here. Tonight, my eyes watered but beyond that, I was cool. The show, of course, didn’t start on time but it did started. A_____ announced that despite being full of people the room was strikingly solemn and quiet. She turned on music from her laptop which didn’t help since I was right across from the machine and could still barely hear it. She said the filmmakers were here because she was being featured in a documentary, then all but curtsied. She passed around a little notebook for all present to sign in.

The night was in dedication to Mothering and all the definitions around it. A_____’s mother was honorary mother in the audience, and quietly swelled with pride. That she talked about her being a survivor of abuse by both her father and stepfather, yeah– I had to consciously NOT turn my gaze towards her mother right then and park my curiosity over what she might be thinking. We been thru it all over the years, A_____ said. Yes, Lord, her mom said.

Most of the opening features were writers in residence at the space and they talked about their mothers, of course. One writer read from a textbook on bullying she co-wrote with her mother. Another read about her unique experience as a mother and shared a story inspired by purchasing a Christmas tree. Several of the writers were uncomfortable in public speaking and warned us in case they were awful. They weren’t. A nice short story told here, a very brief poem shared there. The woman with the brief poem, told a better story via introducing herself than the poem itself. After telling us her history of abuse and how she and her three kids are starting over and now living with her father after going through a divorce, I better understood why she entered the room without ever seeing or speaking to me– instead negotiating around me as if I were a stanchion holding up the ceiling. I was a dude–and automatically a card carrying suspect for prospective assholery. Alright alright alright.

The reading was scheduled for 7-9. At 10 minutes to 9, A_____ gave the room a time check for those who needed to leave but demanded the room immediately gather for a group picture. Then she explained she was leaving the bay area for Stockton first thing in the morning. This after being priced out of her apartment, and of course gentrification. The room rattled with surprise. She briefly told of her grandmother who lost the lease on her home after XX number of years, a story many of us know well and are used to hearing.

Half the room emptied out before it was time for me to share. I wanted to be here because under a theme such as mothering, I saw myself with a unique story. Until then no one mentioned adoption foster children. For years when someone mentioned Mother to me, my mind went in two directions. I read poems for both my mothers, which I rarely do, though the mother who raised me was certainly represented in a more positive light and with more material. But somehow it felt nice to finally represent both of them. My oldest poem about my adoptive mother made the room hungry. Right in the middle of my reading, one woman got up to leave and I compulsively hugged her. The other male in the room, a youngster all afro above a rail thin body, sang a boys II men song, of course. R_____ shared a wonderful off-the-dome story about her daughter rejecting her as a mother from infancy. Another older sister I knew, my self-elected God-Mother, recited an older poem with a ferocity and life that the remaining audience seemed to ignite itself on her words. Very good word to end the night on.

And a great night it was. We were done at 10:10. There’d been a positive and warm night that flowed wonderfully well with strong words and good work. A rare Saturday night reading I attended and left without holding any regret or snark.


The restaurant was quiet and church-like. The wait staff and cooks outnumbered the guests. I walked towards the back and found a banquet room where a half dozen people sat quietly eating. They sat at one of the two long banquet tables in a kind of solemn thanksgiving.

The woman hosting who’d emailed me sometime earlier, approached and introduced herself. I sat down and waited for the program to start. The man next to me whom I’d known for years, took out a folder and removed a painting of his mother whom earlier this year had died. The painting was of her as a younger woman and he told me that she’d been a professional opera singer in her youth. When he caught me writing out some brief notes, he announced aloud I was left handed. I remembered the story my mom told me that when I was a baby and she was letting me try to feed myself, she would take the food or utensil out of my left hand and put it in my right and she said I would just throw it down and not eat anything in frustration. He in turn talked about how in even older days left-handedness was discouraged and many youngsters were forcibly made to use their right. Once I sat in a college lecture and the desk in the auditorium was so tiny and so obviously intended for a right hander’s comfort, I gave up and used the writing tablet of the desk next to me to keep notes. Then someone behind me stage whispering to someone else to ‘look’…

The room was intimate enough to where there was no need for a open mic sheet. Anyone could just stand and do their reading for up to five minutes. After 20 minutes of open, I was given the floor. It was nice having a couple of people I knew, one a wonderful poet and the other a former co-worker whom I ran into on Bart the previous week, walk in and join the proceedings. I laid my phone down on the table next to me and recorded it. It was a wonderful, fun and positive reading of new poems. The recording came out nicely.

Feel Free to Listen on Soundcloud

The praise dancers of the Apostolic Faith Church.  Louis Byrd photographer

The praise dancers of the Apostolic Faith Church perform during the Family and Friends Day morning service.

If you use a Yoruba chant to open a public event, welcoming the ancestors to join and be welcome in the proceedings, how do you close the ceremony and tell the ancestors, spirits– thanks for coming! shows over now, yawl can go back to the far reaches of heaven or wherever… I ask because a woman got up to do the opening welcome. Since she announced herself as a teacher– she did it ‘properly’, in Yoruba. Emptied a plastic drinking glass over a tiny but erect houseplant then proudly returned to her seat, smiling. Then sometime later, perhaps an hour or so, to my left from where I sat in the back, what appeared to be a chestful of blue cigarette smoke moved up the aisle and quietly dissipated into the air. Thin lines of embroidered smoke moved stealthily like the tail end of a dress swinging then appearing to step into nothingness. The poetry reading went on. Certainly no one was smoking or even vaping in here. A former librarian sat across from me, attentive (and resembled Michelle Obama if Michelle was fair skinned and had long dookie braids) No one except me acted as if they saw anything and I’m not sure I really saw it. But, of course I did. I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Saturday was the 26th Annual African American Celebration Through Poetry held at the West Oakland Branch Library. In spite of its 26 year run, I’d all but forgotten about it until having dinner with a friend of mine who forwarded me the flyer and call for poets. I read at this event at least twice before. The last time, an uncountable number of years ago, I read a story– a retelling of the John Henry folktale, only done as if Lord Buckley would do it, through his semantics of the hip. I read it one time only and shelved it for being ‘weird’. I have nowhere near the stage confidence of Lord Buckley, even if he’s basically a car thief of African American slanguage.

This time though, I had some poems to represent under the Black Lives Matter campaign and wanted to be in that room and share them.

It was Super Bowl weekend. The sky was polished bright blue. I got to the library an hour early and crossed the street to hang out for a while at de Fremery Park. The park has a long and involved history with Oakland and the Black Panthers, but a history for me also. I thought of the times I came here as a kid; the hours spent on slides and swings, the sand I’ve eaten. The picnics here with family. My grandfather lived a few blocks sprint from here and another block further from him was where my first best friend, Anthony, once lived. Yet another two blocks from him was the beauty school where my mom once taught. All memories moving at lightspeed away from me, it seems. I crossed the park and settled amongst a half dozen pic-nic tables to write. Across from me a group of men, all white I quietly noted, played basketball. A man walked his children over to the playground. From where I sat, I couldn’t see the concrete skater’s bowl just below the park’s horizon. I opened my backpack, took out some paper and notebooks and worked for a half hour or so.

I slowly strolled back to the library, passing the recreation center which after all these years I’ve never been inside of. Its a huge Victorian mansion I’ve never had courage enough to enter. Today I had no time. I walked past and saw a few girls in black and purple dresses getting ready for something; all preening and posing in front of hand mirrors. I wanted to be nosy, but being alone I was obviously a dismissible pervert, so I kept my head down and crossed the street.

50 or 60 or so chairs had been set up in the multi-purpose room; its tiny kitchen open; a bowl of mixed fruit and a carafe of coffee was already set out. Reynaldo, a painter was attempting to hang some of his paintings but the temporary hooks wouldn’t adhere to their surface, and twice his paintings slid off the wall and thwacked the ground loudly. Another artist took over the back table with collaged post-cards and flyers, then littered the stage with graffiti’d umbrellas painted with key words, affirmations and historical figures. For a while I talked with a man I knew from years ago. We caught up briefly while his wife sat across from us doing some last minute work on her laptop. He told me since we’d last talked he’d gone to Brazil but while there picked up some nasty infection of some kind. What got him to go to Brazil? I asked. While he answered, his wife smirked to herself and shook her head, as dismissively as a judgmental mother. She puffed herself up slightly like a bird and announced over us both the name of the conference she attended and the talk she had to give. But she mostly kept her eyes on the screen and shook her head. Her eavesdropping suddenly taking what little energy there was out of our chat.

Reynaldo came over to where me and the man was standing. He had found a display solution for his paintings since he couldn’t hang them. For all intents and purposes, he looked like me, if I came from Jamaica. Heavy set in a hand painted t-shirt, a wiry beard tracing his jaw and a red black and green skull cap on his head.

What college did Malcolm X go to? He said. He didn’t. But people at every university in this country study Malcolm X.

I asked him all of nothing, but he stood next to me and started talking. What’s weird: he kinda directly answered a question I posed to the universe a month or so back.

You don’t go to school to study art, Reynaldo said with a vague distain. You learn how to make art by making art. You learn by doing it, You learn by making mistakes. People ask me where I went to school. Schools come to me! You don’t go to school to study to be an artist. You make art! No one tells me how to make these paintings…

I looked at the paintings he displayed: the one on the end will make you think of Picasso. This one reminiscent of Matisse. All raw and powerful and well crafted. I listened and remembered: I never studied poetry in high school. I discovered poets by going to the library and choosing books at random, some based on the title, others on a name I kinda remembered.

I learned to write poetry as on the job training, I finally told him.

All art is on the job training, he said. Then ended our conversation and went back to his art table.

And maybe that was the ENTIRE reason I wanted to come to this event.

Otherwise, it started a leisurely half hour late. The host arriving 10 minutes before the 1pm start time. It was scheduled to end at 4 and I left a quarter before the hour and they still had several readers and an open mic to get to.

And the show itself; a community poetry reading which felt more like church fellowship. A lot of seniors,– myself included, I guess– in the audience and performing. The woman dressed most elegant who gave a lot of shade to her husband earlier, did the opening ceremony in Yoruba, which was nice. She was dressed in a dark pink business casual suit, not some flowery West African wrap. I listened to her vowel heavy words and thought how both Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou fueled both poems I planned to read. I remembered my grandfather and the cadence he’d use for his sermons, a cadence I certainly appropriated in my delivery.

The woman finished and returned to her seat, swollen with pride. The, ahem, smoke I saw moving amongst the crowd, I wondered if it remained here or if it came attached to someone in the room? Nonetheless, it was like a sheer skirt whose piping you could barely see before it vanished.

The first reader was a young high school girl who read a poem on her phone, then placed the phone on the speaker next to the mic while a gospel song played, she then Praise Danced. A curious development to emerge in Christian churches since I’ve been away… She pantomimed the lyrics, her long arms and legs swooping as if she were attempting tai chi and got the holy ghost. The readers varied from a man pacing while doing a mini-lecture before reciting Claude McKay’s If We Must Die then two original and brief poems. A buttery smooth senior who recited perfectly measured couplets in the old-school Toast style. A legendary bay poet who performed in a super-powered wheel chair and apologized for needing to leave early and making people buy her book. She set up shop in the back of the room before leaving. Activist Leroy Moore demanded we include honoring disabled African Americans when we honor folks during Black History Month. (Mental note: Get his book, Avoid Amazon.)

I awaited a couple more poets of legend and note to perform, both of whom I knew, before I snuck out. I was happy to’ve been there and read. I felt like I gave a micro-sermon. People were attentive and present and loving. It felt like church fellowship, too. If there is a proper closing ceremony in the Yoruba tradition, I missed it. But I’m glad the spirit (Claude, was that you??) moved among us and was even happier it didn’t follow me out of the library.

But seriously– how to show spirits the final exit and who tells them Thank You and Good Night?


I read as part of Litquake SF this weekend in the Mission, reading with the group Cave Canem. I went with Stewart, my friend and fellow CC member, who reached out and asked to join me when I went to the city. We made it to the gallery exactly on time, but first mistaking it for its neighboring shop. We fell into the shop like flies, though the space didn’t immediately make sense. There was no space for performance or audience. But this was the address given, Right? Everything on the street was open as we walked down, we saw readers standing in glass display windows at shoe stores and mysterious raves/gatherings in much too dark alleys for ya boy. Stewart looked back out towards the sidewalk and saw Arisa, my contact and the event organizer, standing Right There like a movie star, tall and regal, on her phone. I didn’t push for a mushy greeting. No warm shakes or hugs; being on time was love enough. It was the right address, but we didn’t see the sandwich board at the entrance to a long dark alley lit with rope lights. The Incline Gallery is indeed built with two inclines. Arisa loved explaining how it was once a morgue and indeed its an odd building, a vertical gallery with long inclines leading upstairs with wire and string art suspended along the walls. I made my way up to the top and met the gallery owner Christo, who immediately jumped into a story about his name and why he owns a gallery. He apologized for being so tired and explained his sunken eyes and asked our forgiveness if he sneaks out before the reading ends for a quick drink and a bed. When he asked if i needed anything i immediately said bathroom and he opened a glass patio door leading down a dark long hallway that seemed diabolically without light fixtures. It was near sunset and I was able to follow what little light leaked through the dimness to find the restroom as if the thing glowed in the dark.

The Incline Gallery had two level landings and Arisa placed the readers at both; myself and roger reeves used the middle landing, robin coste lewis and Arisa used the top. Us introducing one another so the audience, mingling all around us, could just move their heads from one person to another. No microphones. Poems came from every direction, it seemed. It was quite beautiful. I was the first reader and stood in the center of the incline facing audience standing or seated on the floor going up towards the top level and back down towards the street. An older couple came in with two dogs on leashes and they flanked me on either side while I lifted my voice to the upper level. We were to introduce one another so I introduced Robin standing at the top of the gallery behind a web of white yarn, and she introduced Roger who was standing with me, and the night ended with Arisa back at the top.

We all performed with audience standing at our shoulders, creating this great intimacy. It reminded me of poetry readings from years ago. Odd little art gatherings in living rooms, on street corners, on public transportation. Then it was over and wasn’t so awkward, people flowing out of the gallery like water draining from a container. Neither Stewart nor I mingled very much. We left the gallery and when we got to the sidewalk, I immediately recognized a woman coming towards us. She was scheduled to read and breathlessly told us she’d driven in from Tracy and the traffic, we already saw earlier, was awful. God knows where she parked, if she parked. I didn’t ask.

Is it over already? She said anxious.

Yeah, I said, defeated. I hugged her and introduced Stewart who’d said earlier he wanted to meet her, wanted to meet another local Cave Canem member. Earlier I told him she and I went to grade school together.

She shook her head exasperated over the traffic and briefly said she’d come from her brother’s event in Tracy. I told her to check in with Arisa who remained at the gallery wrapping things up. She spun away from us.

God, she is gorgeous, Stewart said.

Yes, she is. I said.

We walked over towards the Elbo Room and went into the bookmobile from the SF Library that was parked out front. I barely noticed the dude at the door was holding a clicker in his palm, taking an informal census. Inside there was a woman stationed at a laptop whom he knew. We ought to do this every year, the woman said. We had hundreds of people visit tonight. Hundreds.

Stewart smiled, pleased because earlier he had said the same thing.


We separated soon as we got back to Oakland, him vanishing into the night to meet up with a friend he’d been texting, me jumping a bus home, having sold a book and snagged a burrito. The night was fun. My heart felt full. Watching Stewart be absorbed into the night, I didn’t feel abandoned or alone. I didn’t wait long for my empty, late night bus. It felt good opening my voice and delivering poems in that place. And I saw you there in the crowd! You with your supple, gorgeous face, your luminous eyes. How I appreciated your presence and applause and love.

The Man With Two Dogs

Posted: March 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

dog near river

The poetry reading Saturday night at the bookstore went well. However much I grumbled over being there on a Saturday night, the reading felt good and the poems were well received. The room was full of seniors, myself included; all men and women frosted by time. Their eyes I appreciated, especially the two older women in the center of the room whom I didn’t know yet adored and read almost exclusively to them.

But what I mostly want to talk about is the man who was the first to arrive at the bookstore and remained there the entire night. He sat in a folding chair near one of the bookshelves and held two small terriers, a whitened grandmother and her small brown grandchild. The man, an older Filipino gentleman whose black hair was just yielding grey and white strands, wore black aviator shades and kept the dogs hugged together in his lap. I greeted him when I arrived and he said as if apologizing, I’ve never been to a poetry reading. He remained quiet and attentive, the dogs too.

Until the co-feature, this older man brought in his old border collie with its whitened muzzle and the other man’s terriers became agitated and curious, tossing barks across the room until the man whispered them down. The co-feature’s wife petted her border collie to the floor though the dog was impatient and uncomfortable and kept standing, looking around and changing positions.

There was less than 20 people in the bookstore, including dude behind the counter. Outside though, I kept seeing the shadow of someone walking back and forth, staring in at us.

I think there’s another poet outside wanting to get in, Someone said.

He’s no poet. The host said, dismissive, stopping everything with her raised palm. He’s been here before, trust me. He’s better outside.

The co-feature was gently flaking with pretention, reading formal poems, sonnets and sestinas as a habitually condescending professor. At one point, he turned the book he read out of towards us in the audience, pointing out which lines rhymed. But the work was fine enough and I bought one of his books though he didn’t look cross-eyed at mine nor offered a trade, as other writers with class might.

The reading I honored and I told the host she did something I’d never seen another host do. She actually read the poetry collections of the features beforehand and wrote an original introduction about how she received their work. I mean, really. NOBODY does that.

The features read first; with no audience applause between poems, everyone saves it for last. Reading first was cool because it relaxed me and allowed me to listen more attentively.

And the open mic went on and was mostly forgettable if for two things. First, was the man who’s introduction to his poem was better than the poem itself. He spoke about losing his youngest brother to a accident many years ago and how during the funeral his older brother announced to the others: We need to make better reasons to come together. I’ve heard so many people in so many families say this, but this man’s brother meant it and followed through. He rented a house in Florida and got the entire family to meet there and be together for a holiday. The oldest relative was begged into baking a Mother’s biscuit recipe. The poem he read was nearly anticlimactic to the build-up in his introduction yet he was quite moving.

And then, the host said the name of the man holding the terriers in his arms. He quietly rose and walked to the front of the room, no mic since the store was so small. The wife of the co-feature with the border collie, leaned over to her husband and whispered: He has 9 dogs.

I’m no poet, the man said quietly. But I’ve been moved by some of the things I’ve heard here tonight. And I’m going to try to speak from my heart and this is what I want to tell you…

We sat there, I did at least, cringing. The night had already heard substandard or at least dusty poems from people who regularly wrote. But this man, not a poet, and quiet, and diligent over his dogs, didn’t promise anything good. But eventually, the man spoke gently and slowly. His words emerging one at a time as if forged. I played his story in my mind while he talked.

I want to tell you, the man said, of the time I lost one of my dogs in the river. We camped in a canyon near the river and while I was setting up, she got away from me. She went into the water and disappeared. I lost her to the water. This was near dark. I walk down into the river and follow it as it turned this way and that. I come out on sand looking for her, calling for her, to nothing. And I go back into the water and then come back out as it got darker and darker. But finally I found her on one of the banks and I went over to her and scooped her up in my arms. I carried her back through the water until we came back to the camp. And that’s the story I wanted to tell you.

And he walked off.

And somehow that non-poem poem, was the most beautiful thing I’d heard. Not because of word choice or poetics, but because of heart. Because of its honesty. Because somehow .. perhaps in how delicately he spoke, his words struck me vividly and I was with him at that camp, amongst the canyon walls and its river. I felt suspense. I felt relief. I felt grateful he was mercifully short. But mostly: the truth and heart of his voice surprised me. The more he spoke, the more I wanted him to speak. Was I the only one who heard him?

As the night finished and people wandered off, I touched the man’s arm. He was thoughtful and kind with his words about my poems. When I told him how much I liked what he said, he easily shrugged it off. I’m no poet, I was just speaking from the heart.

There was no way to tell him, that’s the whole point. Beauty and the heart within it is what I keep searching for. Of all those who spoke that night, it was from him I learned the most. While I spoke with another poet, he turned with his drowsy dogs in his arms and walked out.

There were several strikes against this poetry event having any audience at all.  The first was it being scheduled on a Saturday afternoon at 3, when other even main event readings I’ve attended don’t begin filling up until after sundown, irrespective of the day of the week.  Second: beyond being asked by the events organizer a week prior, I saw no advertisements or announcements.  Third: they were asking $15 per ticket.  Fourth: it turned out to be the first warm spring day of the year.  Who exactly wants to be indoors listening to poetry on a Saturday afternoon?  Besides me, I guess.

Since these readings never start on time, I killed time in a new bookstore across the street, empty of any life, including the behind the counter staff who could barely keep their eyes open.  When I made it to the venue, I was incredibly surprised.

There were about 20 or 30 people, mostly middle aged women, already seated in the arc of folding chairs along the right side of the room.  The stage was just the carpeted floor crowned with four large speakers on risers, and five abstract paintings aligned on the wall.  There was a vinyl poster advertising related events on its own stand on the floor. A comically large orange wingback chair on stage and a mic.  I immediately recognized the woman I’d been talking with over the phone who came over to me, “we’ve been waiting on you,” grabbed my wrist and led me deeper into the far side of the room where a jewelry case was open, across from  three folding tables aligned with an assortment of food, sandwiches and cake and a cooler of juice and water.

I was introduced to one young woman poet, then another.  I knew the third woman and fell immediately into her arms, having not seen her for years.  While still embracing and admiring one another– her seemingly a foot taller and more muscular than I– I heard my name screeched, turned and saw the only woman I will name here, Nedra.

Nedra’s gravitational pull drew me away from the other woman mid-sentence, where she held me and surprisingly kept saying the words, My Baby, as I lay in her arms.  She reminded me of every aunt I’ve known and loved, with long curly hair waterfalling her shoulders.  A oceanic blue dress hung over her bubbling frame like a choir’s robe.  She propped herself on a single crutch which clattered to the ground as she turned and recognized me.  I immediately picked it up and faced her.  I made sure to introduce both women, even though they knew one another.  I’ve known the first, taller woman from poetry events since the mid 90’s.  Nedra and I though, went to high school together.

I distinctly remember her, though we never spent any time together as friends.  I remember, if you want my honesty, her looking at me from the height of an insurmountable crush.  A crush I could never awaken for and return.  We had no classes together and neither am I sure we were in the same grade.  We would pass one another in the hall and could recognize each other.  She was not someone who caught my attention. But until now, had we ever really had a conversation?  Her words surprised and comforted me and I emerged from the embrace and she swept over 30 years in a breath, moving to New Orleans for a while then back here to California where she’d gotten married (she but briefly pointed to the side of the room where her husband sat).  My own 30 years I kept silent about.  Its too much, too much to exchange in passing as one would business cards.

The show started quickly.  I’d say, before 3:15 everyone was asked to take their seats and they did and we started.  The show was hosted by Percy Mae of whom a couple of things need to be said.  First: she was introduced to me slightly bent over a walking stick.  Her hair was short and cloud silver.  She wore a blue housedress and simple house-boots, these soft, cottony black moccasins.  A modernized, remixed Moms Mabley, the huge orange chair was for her.  She would host the show and introduce performers, spit jokes and keep the audience engaged between acts.  A superb hostess really.  But she couldn’t be real.  To look in her face, however black cracks or not, to see how she’s dressed amidst these other wopmen dressed as if for church, Percy Mae is someone in performance.  That performance is extraordinary with her never breaking character, nor revealing even a crumb of artifice. Only if she’d snatched off her wig and revealed a cancerously ravaged scalp would I even begin to wonder if she was real.  Even then I’d compliment her genius for taking it that far, cutting her own hair down for ‘effect’.  Her performance, hands down — real or not– was the greatest of the night.

Otherwise, the afternoon was poetry as theater; taking the words and imagery of poetry and performing it, staging it, like mini-one act plays.  I was continually asked if I had music-cues, which confused me.  I just wanted to be heard.  The first young woman recited strong, confident poems about woman-hood and pride.  The second performer was also a playwright.  She was fun, using several instrumentals on cd and dancing in chorus with herself.  Using a gold butterfly cape with an immense wingspan.  Her poems stood from a confident place of femininity and were in character as a woman in the club flirting and being flirted with.

I was introduced as the evenings hunk– Percy’s words, not mine.  I was the only male poet. I read three poems to an attentive room of primarily women and the poems felt good to do and were received well. The woman organizer who closed the event’s poetry section, used props as well as music. Bringing out a couple of towels (one for Percy Mae) and shower caps and doing a poem about being a bathroom superstar.

There was a break for food and most of the people stood and lined up at the tables across from me. I didn’t eat and didn’t get in line. But Nedra came over to me, said I should get some bread pudding since she made all the deserts. I didn’t move; I wasn’t hungry or felt like snacking. But I looked up and Nedra brought me a bowl of banana pudding with a blue plastic knife in it, no more forks. How long has it been since a woman brought me… Anything. I took the bowl and added to it, slicing a chunk of cake she’d also made while she watched me, then sat down and ate as she made her way back across the room to her seat and the second half of the show started.

An older man put down his walking cane and expertly covered The Four Tops and the Temptations to a CD of instrumentals. A young girl, a teenager, rapped some original pieces while her mom circled around her as paparazzi and filmed her set. Both were superb. Another young woman, mostly huge Diana Ross hair and a matchstick body sang gospel. Also wonderful.

And I began to feel antsy, wanting to leave. I enjoyed the music even as my heart compelled me to escape, to return to my nothing at home. From where I sat in the room, I’d have to cross between performers and audience. I’d have to await courage and the right moment. I wanted to say goodbye and be polite since everyone was nice and loving to me. But more than that I felt nervous and anxious. I don’t know why. The Event Organizer cleaned up the food area, stuffing the garbage can. I watched as Nedra stacked three desert containers and carry them across the gallery then hand them to her husband who turned and walked outside with them. The Event Organizer wiped down the food table and as she crossed the room returning to her seat near the sound system, I followed her, letting her lead me to the exit.

The gospel singer with the hair began to sing a Janet Jackson song, Let’s Wait Awhile. Nedra turned her head away from me. Curly hair fell before her face in a veil. I spun on my heels and went outside.

Unlike the hundreds of times I’ve ghosted a poetry reading or event, this was the only time I was ever followed out.

I made it half a block before my name rose behind me. I turned and in the middle of the sidewalk, in flowing blue fabric, stood Nedra. Obediantly, I lowered my head and fast strolled back to her, hearing my name a second time. Not from Nedra, but from another woman standing across from her leaned against a parked car– who helped her shout my name down the street, and who smiled and nodded and ‘uh-huhed’ as I came back.

We stood and hugged and promised to keep in touch. Her mascara matching her dress, but unable to hide everything beneath the surface of her expression. I asked her to friend me on Facebook, wanting her to write me, to exchange stories over the last 20 years. She looked at me with what I could only describe as tenderness and said she enjoyed my poetry. To say: my last sight of her had to’ve been in 1986, a couple of lifetimes away from both of us. Between us was a gigantic What If. Did the woman standing beside the car see it? All the decisions neither of us ever made. Could I have used her friendship when my mother died, when my identity was shattering? Could she have used mine? She was a strange alternative life I never got to know. The babies, the memories, the friendship that never happened and we never knew spun around us in the wind, all empty and lifeless like ashes or leaves. She said she’ll be in touch. She’s always throwing parties or bbq’s, she said. And I never attend any, as I’m always alone, as I was the rest of that night and weekend. I couldn’t imagine travelling all the way out to where she said she lived, attending one of her gatherings, dateless and car-less, pretending to be normal and sociable. She promised she would look me up. I told her I’d appreciate that and how it was good to see her in person. After all these years. I touched her arm, exchanged a few words like you’d take specific coins from someone’s palm, turned and walked off into the sunset.