Posts Tagged ‘poetry readings’

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?

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.

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.

christoflight

We’d gathered together for a poetry reading none of us wanted to attend. This was weeks ago, the same day a group of men and women gathered in a church for bible study and were murdered by someone from the community they invited in. However awful and angry all of us had been feeling from events over the last year leading up to this day, now that energy had converted into untenable mourning and we all were as if gathered at a wake.

It was hard for me to find the café/bookstore at first, since its tucked in an area of smooth concrete and office buildings. Art here would be an afterthought. But not here in the new Oakland where this café serves beer on tap in mason jars. I’d already walked past it before this brother ran out after me calling me back. I’d just met him the night before at another event and though we were but gentle strangers, I still moved to hug him.

The café/bookstore is modest and comfy with its natural wood bookshelves and tables. Very homey in spite of being surrounded by so much cold concrete and steel and glass. I sat with this New Brother and a woman, whom I knew and who kept choking back tears talking with us about feeling professionally belittled and socially degraded on book tours due to her race, her being Spanish not black. At the end of the night I fell into her arms and hugged her a long time. I’m not usually the one to let go first, I told her. She said we should get together and write sometime and I said of course. Of course.

Across the room, there was a Filipino poet whom I knew and hadn’t seen in person in a long time. I went over to him, and though he wasn’t nasty to me, it somehow felt like I’d made a mistake. Like he was tired or just Done with everything. We shook hands, chatted briefly, but there was nothing he wanted from me and I quietly went back across the room to where I was.

None of us could figure any thing out. And we didn’t want to be there, but it was a book release for a local woman we all respected and liked. And the show must go on, right? It wouldn’t be a long night.

The night comprised of four mini-features and ended with the woman reading from her amazing new book. And though our energy muted, a lot of good work was shared and all the readers solid.

So: the end of the night. One woman I knew, whom I’ll call Tea, here, approached and asked if I wanted a ride home. I shrugged sure, of course. The organizer of the night’s event paid me and I told him about Tea and her work and asked him to consider her for a future event.

But before any of us left, I found Tea showing one of the men who featured earlier a picture on her phone. She took a shot of the Jesus projected on the fancy church just down the street. They were both staring at the photo incredulous.

I wanted to show you this because in your reading you mentioned studying theology in college, She told the man.

The man stared at her photo with his hand over his mouth. Blown away.

They both thought the image, glowing like a beacon on her phone, more closely resembled Baphomet than Jesus. The out of focus halo resembling horns. The hand position. Tea being no avid church goer. Believing more in people and spirit than religious doctrine and the bible. So she and the younger theology student bonded over the odd-looking photo before she and I finally left the venue.

We walked up to where she parked. Her car had been towed. She nearly stepped off the curb into traffic, cussing the air, dazed, confused and angered.

That next afternoon, downtown Oakland, a parade was scheduled for the Warriors recent win. But that was tomorrow, she kept saying. There was no sign when I parked there, she kept saying. Why would they do this?

All up the street, tow trucks glowed, their lights almost appearing to giggle in defiance. The sign we approached said the towing would start at 8pm. She parked at around 7. It was now 9:30. And there wasn’t much traffic to be seen anywhere. It was as if the city slept early in anticipation for the parade. All for a basketball game? she kept asking the empty street.

So, she sat on a bench and went into a series of panicked calls about her car, where was it, fully intending to pick it up that night. I could only pace the sidewalk and half listen as she tried to keep her composure talking with someone on the line who didn’t know this, wasn’t sure of that, asking her to please hold. I walked to the corner and stared up at the church and its projected image and remembered how my Catholic ex-girlfriend called it The Creepy Jesus church. The image is slightly blurred, softened. You know its a representation of Christ. But what if you don’t know, then what is it? In the glow of night, its haunting.

Tea found where they’d towed her car but found it otherwise hard to think.

Part time, she drives for Lyft or Uber or whomever. I haven’t yet used either service yet. So with me still waiting, she hung up from the towing company and then used her app to request a car. Only to find out that she would be charged 100% over the regular fee because right now it was a rush hour.

What rush, she shouted anew. What rush hour are you talking about? There’s no traffic. Do you see any traffic?

Beyond sweeping tow trucks and police lights, I didn’t. Some people walked. A car or two passed. The man who hosted the reading that night walked past us on the phone, his car having disappeared as well.

So I called a cab for Tea and me.

She kept arguing with her phone and the app. How do you get out of this, she said shaking her phone. I didn’t know.

A taxi quietly pulled up next to us. I directed the man to take us to my house. The driver overheard her talking with another person about how much she’d have to pay for her car. After she hung up told us what a racket it all was. You pay the police, you pay the towing service. You’ll end up paying $400, $500, the man said.

We pulled up in front of my house.

I’ll get out with you, Tea said disappointed.

I said no, its okay. Wanting to be done with everything.

I paid the cab fare and tipped him. Then gave her my last two twenty dollar bills to go from there to wherever else she needed. The tow yard and/or home. I hugged her. I got out.

And I was angry. But why? The night only cost me $60. For her, so much more. I don’t even own a car.

Yet I felt tense and frustrated. Once upstairs, I had to keep repeating how I was grateful and thankful, in order to ease the anger that rose within me. I was grateful and thankful:

* I had enough money to get us home safely
* Beyond the towed car, nothing bad happened, no one was hurt
* The reading went well
* I didn’t expect to get paid, but I was
* the money I put in the hat to pay the other readers, I got double my money back. I donated $6 and was paid $12.
* The features book was really good

My anger eventually dissolved like ice in a glass of water. She text me a thank you and said she’ll pick the car up in the morning before the parade. I texted back how sorry I was that had to happen but was still glad it ended okay. I took a shot of whiskey and went to sleep.

A Tale Of Two Readings

Posted: December 16, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags:

sun

The first reading was for a fundraiser for Breast Cancer. My friend from high school emailed a while back asking if I’d participate. I immediately said yes before I thought—exactly what am I supposed to say to a room full of women about breast cancer?? What kind of audience is this?? But my heart kept insisting: Read the poem There Is Sun. Then, as time got closer: Read it and tell it to the audience as if to your mother…

Ok. “There are so many things I’ve never gotten to share with her.” There Is Sun is a poem of love and hope and its nearly songlike. I’d read after the praise dancers and before the fashion show, she said. Be high energy and positive, she said.

The venue was near the airport and I saw on line how a bus passed it, but when I got on that bus a different story emerged. The bus by-passes the area I needed by a half mile, then kept going. The bus driver had no idea what the street was or if a bus went there and apologized as he dropped me off at the quiet airport. I was stuck and needed a cab. I had less than a half hour.

A woman approached me at the taxi stand. She said it would be 20 dollars. I’d been paid 50 already. I reached into my pocket, but she said: After your ride, sir.

I got in shotgun. A woman was already in the backseat of the van waiting.

I was told we were going first to Alameda to drop her off. The driver took off slow. I relaxed, not trying to push into anxiety. Everything will turn out as it should, I thought.

The woman whispered directions to the driver. The driver turned onto a cul-de-sac where a huge spruce tree was covered with white lights. We pull up outside a boxy mansion, a necklace of lights smiling in the window. A woman strolled out down the path as the driver pulled a suitcase from out of the van. How much do I owe, she said after greeting the girl.

The driver plugged my address into his phone and we quietly drove back to the airport. No radio. No conversation until he pointed to a dark building I didn’t clearly see. A great Indian restaurant there, he said. I didn’t want to be an ass. I’ll need to talk to people later tonight, right? I said: I was in Mumbai last Christmas. He grunted. We turned down one street then another as his phone counted down the number of feet. We pulled up in the crowded driveway and I got out.

The banquet hall turned out to be a mason meeting temple. I stood in the lobby and saw group photographs of men and women in sashes and mason symbols hanging on the wall.

And not just any mason. But the order my mother was a member of.

I remained shyly in the lobby doorway. To my left, a large banquet hall where the breast cancer fundraiser was beginning. The huge round tables were decorated in white and pink. As I arrived, the crowded room all stood to get in line for hors’doerves of meatballs and deviled eggs and fruit slices. To my right, a doorway opened to a long hallway and a smaller meeting room and the bathrooms. Before me, a 1970’s wood paneled stairwell ascended upstairs, decorated with class-style group photographs and plaques. I wanted to follow the stairwell but didn’t. No one would’ve stopped me until they found out I was just being nosy. So I remained in the lobby, not feeling comfortable enough to go inside, not feeling comfortable enough to wander around upstairs and not sure what I was doing, period. With me at the door was a older man in a folding chair, and two women dressed in matching white who were to perform just before me. We all introduced ourselves. The women were waiting to be called next.

About then, I begin wondering where my friend was and what she looks like now. Then, for the first time in years, I lay eyes on her, recognizing her immediately. She reminded me of a spring bird with long black eyelashes. She seemed the perfect organizer, supervisor. Confident, cool, precise and all knowing. Not rushed. I entered slowly like a gunfighter, my hands in the pockets of my long black overcoat. She made an announcement on mic, then took a lap around the room before approaching me, sans hello.

Are you ready to go? She said. The program lay across her forearm like a clipboard.

Uh, right now? I shrugged. Yeah.

Well, in a minute, she said. You’re after the dancers, they’ll be up in one second. She spun off.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. I talked with the dude sitting at the door about his grandchildren in Atlanta. I went over to a table of women and asked for a program, but there was none. After a couple of minutes, my friend marched over and handed me one. Then said: Can you go a little longer, the fashion people are still getting ready.

I told her I was going to read one poem, tell a story and do the Poem. She gave a non-verbal okay with that and walked off.

The praise dancers performed to a pre-recorded gospel song. I saw little of it being all the way in back, except how the ladies raised their gloved hands to push an imaginary sun across the sky with choreography. My friend walks past me with ‘you’re next’ and I slip out of my coat and get up.

I read a poem dedicated to my mom, then told the story about how my next poem was written, then do the last poem. I kept my eyes at the back of the room on the table of girls I’d gone to school with. I kept my eyes on the woman standing all the way at the back of the room against the wall. I scanned the tables of older women around me. There were some men in the room, but not many. One young man, maybe in his 20s or so, never looked up at me. I hoped something I said meant something. I finished my first poem to silence. I felt the silence and it halted me. The room was listening, though I was listening to the void left by them listening. There was no podium to hide behind and ground myself. This made me nervous and I told the room so. Me? Nervous? Rare. I began telling the story and felt suddenly inarticulate and foolish, as if my words were boxy Legos I had to awkwardly angle out of my mouth. I didn’t go blank, exactly. My words just felt sloppy and malleable.

I powered through the set, got off to applause, then sat in back of the room. No one really looked at me and certainly no one said anything. I thought: What did that have to do with breast cancer? Silly. I felt silly. And awkward.

A woman approached me flanked by two small children, each holding paper plates of fruit. The woman was taller, larger than me. Near her, I also felt like a kind of child. She sat in the chair next to me, her son on the other side. I got up and gave my seat to her daughter. I told her my ride was coming, and it was ok. No one was looking when I got up. I went out of the banquet hall into the lobby and called Harem, the shuttle driver. I went out to the cold parking lot. I didn’t want to see the fashion show, I didn’t want anything else. I stood outside, shrank into my coat and felt embarrassed.

The shuttle arrived in minutes. I got in, looked at my phone and realized I was inside the banquet hall for a shorter amount of time than the ride here from the airport through Alameda. The shuttle was still quiet, no other passengers and no radio playing. We passed the Indian restaurant the driver pointed out earlier and I asked him: What part of India are you from? He said he was from Afghanistan. I shrunk into my seat further and didn’t say anything else except Thank You when I got out.

**

The second reading was this past Saturday. Not far from my house.

I got off the bus, walked a couple of dark blocks through a double wall of boys standing quietly on the street corner. I found the address, double checked it on my phone and saw a small sign on the hand-rail pointing to the alley next to the house, which was illuminated with tall glass candles.

A white dude stood in shadow in the backyard. He greeted me, his voice nervous, watching me approach in the dark, alone, responding only to his questions. I could hear his heart thumping as he asked; You hear for the reading? Then: You’re the first to arrive. The reading was in the basement garage of a large Victorian. The basement huge, nicely lit with white rope lights. There was the presence of a piano and a white sheet up for a film to be shown later.

A small table with bottles of wine, cookies and crackers laid out like a shuffled deck of cards. I was cornered in conversation for a long while by a filmmaker from New Zealand. This benefited me because:

1) He stayed with our conversation as the room behind him filled up. There was no opportunity to mingle or feel awkward around anyone else.
2) He kept me from finding a seat and sitting quietly, pretending to scroll through my Facebook feed
3) He helped the hour pass while waiting for others to arrive and the show to start.

He apologized for holding me hostage– me not peeling out of my coat and backpack until it was time to read. I was surprised I did know about four or five people who arrived. I find myself often wishing I was a different kind of person, more gregarious, more likeable, more charming. One woman who arrived was in my writers group from years ago. She asked: What happened to your manuscript. And I was flooded with excuses and shame. It stalled, I told her truthfully. But some truth a West Indian woman will look askance at, and for good reason.

Its true, as shit piled on a corner is true. But its still shit.

There’s not much detail to share. But the event was nice, intimate. It opened with some great music, one of the performers playing piano, a woman sang a spiritual, the pianist read poems. I read, followed by another woman who performed from memory. The event ended with the filmmakers film. I’d been told the film was experimental and abstract. We all settled down quietly for the next seven minutes. The room darkened, the screen then lit with blue and we waited for the film to start.

But it started already. It was a shot of the sky, wispy clouds. A single shot, quiet. No ambient noise, and for several minutes we were unsure anything was playing at all. The filmmaker said: I submit this to you as a kind of meditation. But did we want that? We paitiently waited through the seven minutes and suddenly, as if a plug was pulled, the screen went black. The quiet room stayed quiet. And with no one speaking, we all gradually got up and began to leave.

Well, I was the first to leave…

BART STRIKE

Without Bart, I had to get to San Francisco hours early for the reading I was in. For a 5:30 call time, I was at the Embarcadero eating vegan doughnuts, sipping coffee and journalling by 3. I finally commuted deeper into the city, back to the Mission and a neighborhood I once lived. Behind me, there was a junior high school aged boy who wouldn’t stop talking; he was so bright and alive, yet he monologued confidently as a prison lifer. All attitude and energy and not one fuck was given.

I was a half hour early to the hood and took a walk. The bookstore I thought I might burn some time in was now a hollowed empty shell. As was the other bookstore a block down where years ago hosted a open mic and readers series. That’s history, and the place is now dark and shuttered. No one buys books anymore. A bookstore, you stay. What’s that?

I was here for Litcrawl, part of the Litquake literary festival. I got to the bar minutes before the host of the show and one of the festival organizers. While they set up mics and prepped the live on-line stream, I chatted briefly with a friend who showed up. She stopped by to visit before heading off to her own event later that night. We sat and talked a while. I kept thinking about how she once came up as a potential match for me on this on-line dating site. She never responded and we’ve never talked about it. Its a secret I’m supposed to keep or pretend never happened. I guess I also pretended not to hear her but briefly mention some project she was doing with her sweetie, how she tilted her head phototropically on that word and I also didn’t hear her say she was going to the bar to get a drink. She said this twice before getting up. I didn’t want to drink. What I wanted, I couldn’t get.

Another friend and co-feature for the night showed and sat across from me. He and I performed together years ago, before his marriage and daughter, before he was a published author and teacher. We talked but briefly before the reading began. And it was a solid one. Equal female to male readers and everyone was on point. The room, since tonight was a special event, was packed. Standing room only from what I could see at the mic. And folks appeared to listen and be attentive, those closest to the action. It was a great night. My friend shared something new and the two women who ended the night were both excellent. The woman who finsihed the night touched me greatly with poems on her mother– this before she herself began to choke up with her last lines.

The reading finished even if the night was far from over. People crawled out of the bar to the next closest venue, event. I gave copies of my chapbook to the other readers that night and passed out hugs. I sold enough books to get a burrito and some chips, then walked down to the bus stop for the commute home. I wanted to hear some more work, but not having Bart made getting around an ordeal. It would take two hours between leaving the bar and opening my front door.

At the bus stop, a man stopped me and said he enjoyed my poetry. What to do with a compliment? I thanked him, paused to see if there was anything else I need to do or say, but he just stared and I nodded and pushed on to the drug store for corn chips and aloe water. When the bus arrived, the same man got on after me. We talked since we were both heading to the transbay terminal and the same bus back to Oakland.

Turns out he is a reverend and author. He reached into his satchel and pulled out a novel he’d published, set in Oakland. We signed and traded books and talked. Truthfully: I interviewed him, uncomfortable as I was with silence hanging between us since we were travelling together and, well, “He started it.” He seemed quiet as I naturally am. But the conversation was cool. We got in the long line for the bus back to Oakland and waited for a half hour. Here, he turned to the man behind us and asked if he could take our picture. Then we stood quietly next to one another, reading each other’s books. I began his– its not bad. I don’t want to describe it as Ghetto/Urban Fiction, but what else to say? The cover has a hooded out of focus man holding a gun out towards the reader from beneath huge block lettering of the books title, as if the letters were bars, falling to enclose the character or crush him.

Reading the book and noting how one scene flowed into the next, I wondered if the author mapped out his story or just sat and wrote and let it happen. I didn’t ask. The answer is another question: “Why am I not writing a book right now?” Earlier, at the bar with the woman I knew, I mentioned how playwriting seemed like my next logical move. She looked at me and smiling longingly. She told me how while she was unemployed, no writing took place. She promptly disarmed all my excuses that kept me from sitting and thinking and working.

The bus was bloated and left several dozen people still in line as it pulled off. But the trip was peaceful and smooth. Strangers were talking and laughing. They had to, standing so close with one another. The man, Rev. Author, found a seat behind me. When I got off, we shook hands and I promised he’d see me again. I meant it. I was down to visit one of the churches he volunteers for. Both popular and legendary churches in the east bay, and despite my church upbringing, they’re churches I never thought to visit. Until now. And after reading a chapter, I was down to finish his book. Never would have touched it if I hadn’t met him…

I climbed the hill back home and saw the moon was full. My best friend sent me a few texts. He couldn’t make it to the bar and listened to the live stream of the show on line. It was a good night.

Giving A Poetry Reading

Posted: October 11, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

Fort Mason

He called and asked months ago, and I mean months, for me to read at his venue– a bookstore in Fort Mason, San Francisco. I put it in my calendar and forgot until last Monday he called to remind me, then immediately apolgized for not being able to make it.

I got tickets to the game, he said.

So after work yesterday, instead of going home, I walked over a few blocks the a bus stop and headed to the Marina District.

Usually, a few days before a reading I’ll sift through my poems and figure out what looks good to read. Truthfully, I’d felt depressed for weeks and haven’t been able to sit and concentrate on anything especially the silence required to write. But since the start of the month I’ve been journalling a lot–which helps free my mind, taking the thought trash out. I’ve been journal-typing as well as writing longhand. And its worked. Two days this week I was caught by a thought, an image in my mind, and was moved to immediately sit and make notes. Two poems look to be forthcoming.

I got off the bus and immediately dug through my backpack, flipping through my notebook and tested a poem by reading it aloud. I passed a children’s playground and a baseball diamond. I passed a young couple holding hands. The poem sounded better than I remembered.

Fort Mason Center is in the Marina District near the Golden Gate bridge. There’s several boats out in the water and children ran on the patch of grass I saw in the distance. I found a bench and dug through my bag to figure out what I wanted to do with my set. I had a chapbook to sell, so I could read a lot from that. But I still felt ill-prepared and was near disappointed with myself. All I could see was everything I hadn’t done or finished or remembered to bring.

I was early and alone. I didn’t bother posting the reading on Facebook– when I read at this venue the last year, nobody responded to my invite. And tonight there were so many local events competing. During my busride, when a friend of mine called me back, responding finally to my early morning voice mail, I didn’t bother mentioning it.

A huge parking lot and a lot of empty spaces. Most of the people I saw were in white jackets, all kitchen workers on break from the area’s restaurants. A few stray tourists and resident joggers. But nothing moved except me. I walked around to the far side of the building, sat on another bench, looked at the water and passing ships and boats and meditated.

The reading takes place inside a bookstore. The coffee shop half of the bookstore was dark and shuddered. When I arrived, two people behind the counter barely acknowledged me. I was a ghost or they were. I began combing through the bookshelves as gradually more people wandered in. I heard my name mentioned– James hasn’t shown up yet, someone said. They began setting up chairs and the other featured reader apparently came in. I wandered around unseen for a long time until the guest host came over and found me, recognizing me from a previous read. He asked me to write out my introduction for him, so I pulled some paper out of my backpack and scribbled down a couple of lines. Then– he introduced me to the nights other feature, a older woman who turned out to be the lover of a famous writer I’d admired since I began doing poetry in the 90’s. She offered me to go first, so she could get herself ready, she said.

Not very many people, 12-15. All regulars, I presumed. Usually features read for 15, 20 minutes. They gave me a half hour. My heart sank over all the poems I forgot to bring. But it turned out better than expected. I read two poems I’d been re-working the last day or so and they both were received well. From the podium, I can hear and feel how the audience is receiving me. Between that and the feel of the words and lines (and breath) in my mouth, is the space where I find if a poem works or not. I’d look up at the crowd– a few people kept their eyes closed, one woman smiled, the man she sat with nodded along with me as I read, as if picturing the words running before his eyes. People clapped, generously.

And the woman who followed me, the woman I didn’t know I’d already heard of, came up with a stack of books in her arms, books that date well past the early 70’s. She looked professorial. I loved her, her voice, attitude. She had a warmth about her that charmed me. In each of the books she had, there was a napkin for a bookmark. She’d pick up a book, go to the bookmark, read and then refer to a stack of printed pages on the podium, read a poem from there, then choose another book. She was funny, accessible and real. So many readings can be dry or academic, but she was fun, slightly profane and grandmotherly in a way that charmed my heart. I wanted a copy of the book she was selling, but when I overheard her say $15, I let it go. I had $20 bucks left and not much more in my bank account until the 15th. But at the end of the reading, as people mulled around and shook hands or whatever, she offered to trade books– not sell. I gave her two chapbooks for her thick memoir. Then, I wanted to get out of there.

So many times, after readings, I kinda disappear into the night and get home alone. I’m not good at selling or schmoozing or chatting. I want to do the poems and get paid and get outta dodge. A couple of people bought copies of my book (lunch money tomorrow!) and a couple others were so generous and sweet in regards to their response to my work. I thanked them, all the while taking baby steps to the front door.

One woman, older and blonde, approached carrying a huge bag in front of her, hugging it with both hands while a purse hung off one shoulder. She and I left at the same time, talking. In my heart, I wanted to do what I’d always done– wander off alone quietly. But it turned out, she and I were heading to the bus stop together. I relaxed myself. Tried not to think things I always think, but just relaxed, talked and listened. I kept my heart open for her while thinking– isnt’ this what I preferred? To have friends, to be around more women, to not feel so alone. We crossed the parking lot and were soon off speaking of writing and poetry and on to movies and that new music documentary I haven’t yet seen. Then, after another block, music. She said she writes muscially and is inspired by jazz. What kind of music do I listen to. Everything, I said. In my mind, I flashed on my Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton’s Jolene and how much I love them, then added: Even some country music.

At the bus stop she opened up, talking about her years attending the bluegrass festival, her passion for Steve Earle and Merle Haggard. The bus came pretty quick. It was crowded and we didn’t feel obligated to sit with one another and continue. It was nice. Letting go of my shyness, remaining open to her, practicing conversation, practicing presence. She wasn’t attractive to me, it wasn’t that… As a younger man, I often felt myself shut down, like my rib-cage is a kind of clam shell of insecurity that shuts around my heart and I never know what to say. Things have changed. Over the years, I’ve overprotected myself so thoroughly I feared I’d become an emotional hermit. Apparently, little by little, I’ve grown.