Posts Tagged ‘spoken word’

Egon: Don’t cross the streams.
Peter: Why?
Egon: It would be bad.
Peter: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean “bad”?
Egon: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

***
During workshop week, I sat with different poets and talked/shared about our writing and performing lives and philosophies. Someone asked about my writing and poetry life and I asked them theirs. Over the days, it occurred to me how many of the writers here didn’t perform or read their work very often in public. Meaning, they rarely or never went to a café or performance space and read aloud anything they’d been writing. I considered it part of my practice. For many of them, it was uncommon.

That’s not 100% true. A couple of the people there were very familiar with public readings. But others, for example one or two of those leading the weeks’ workshops, had no idea how to use or approach a microphone.

It struck me odd if only because I discovered poetry In Public — in this bookstore, or in that café. ‘Spoken word’ is synonymous with ‘poetry’, right? And after years of familiarity, once I heard Gwendolyn Brooks read ‘We Real Cool’ aloud at a sold out event at UC Berkeley did I realize that was the first time I’d ever heard the poem at all.

If music is created for instruments, isn’t poetry created for voice? If lyrics are made to be sung, isn’t poetry made to be spoken? If a theatrical monologue belongs to a play, shouldn’t a poem belong to the voice as a random, anywhere recitation?

At the end of dinner on the final day of workshop week, all the participants gathered together and volunteers were asked to recite a poem they didn’t write from memory. It was a way of bringing the classics, the published, the famous and infamous, the authors from different cultures and languages into our current conversation and gathering, grounding us as would a prayer.

But earlier in the week, seated at the foot of a gorgeous mountain and the sun quietly setting behind it, when I asked a woman if she’d ever gone to any open mic events or read aloud, she shook her head, unsure if events like that even occurred in her home city.

I had no idea what to say to her.

***

I went to an event at a café in Berkeley Friday night, in support of my friend, a writer and storyteller and who herself has never attended any kind of workshop and, now in her 70’s, is ‘starting to consider’ signing up for one since I’d been going on about it.

It brings me little joy to be at a poetry reading on a weekend night, but since she’d been so supportive of me in the past, I felt socially obligated. We walked in and the place was packed wall to wall with people. My friend, S, came over to me and asked if I’d help him do a quick skit for his part of the open. I loved him and without thinking quickly agreed.

“All you have to do,” he directed, “is go: Oh really, and then what happened.”

He signed up first, of course, and instead of his name, signed up as a corporation of some kind. Instead of doing any poetry, he decided to just play– as he’s apt to do– to throw away any poetry and vibe his way through a absurd story or joke he’d made up.

Once the host stood and got the room to quiet, he had me stand with him at the side of the room, then grabbed my wrist pulling me up to the front of the room with him. Like a bad Abbott and Costello routine, we went to it. He immediately began stammering and spitting about being in a horror workshop with a bunch of, in his impression, slow witted, condescending old people. And in his story/sketch, a child was asked to come speak to the workshop group and of course in the story provided the best poem of the night.

The audience applauded, and we sat down as if nothing had happened, allowing the rest of the night to unfold quietly and without further incident. I sat with him. He’d taken out a mini notebook and wrote while the first feature began, giving his manic, impulsive OCD a point of focus to sit still. I took out an equally small notebook and also wrote, mostly to complain about what I was hearing.

I thought about S during my week in the mountains, mostly how much he’d like the area and hate how we were using it. That his OCD and distractions would tickle his impatience too often to even sit and have a reasonable conversation about writing — much less take time to read anyone else’s work. And though he’d love the outdoors and nature, he’d never stay with the group on any hikes or lectures. He’s his own man, uncontrollable, impatient, distracted, impulsive, manic. And hates even the idea of workshops and what he perceives them to be about.

And then I thought: how sweetly he used me to shit on whatever he thought was going on in the mountain, to illustrate how little he cared or respected anything he assumed was happening during my week, and to basically toss his arm around me and flip off the experience I’d just had, while smiling broadly.

And we sat together for a while during the reading, but he had to run off for work mid-way through and vanished. This just before the friend I came with read. I stayed and listened until the end of the night.

I don’t remember anything I heard. My friend who was featured that night and I arrived minutes before the reading began. I did not sign my name on the open mic sheet. Later, when the host announced the last reader on the open mic for the night, the woman I came with turned and stared at me. I didn’t return her gaze. Reading/sharing wasn’t immediately essential. I was there for her.

As the room began dispersing, I chatted with someone whom I’d known for years. I made the mistake of mentioning to her about my week up in the mountains and asked if she’d ever done anything like that and she immediately scoffed. Read: laughed in my face.

Maybe you don’t need it if you get access to the cabin, I said referring to the one she just mentioned in her poetry.

Oh, its run down, she said, dismissively. The structure I’d sketched in my mind immediately fell apart, splintering and sagging as she spoke.

She laughed, hard, over even the idea of a poetry workshop. She’d heard of it, she’d
“submitted something once before, years ago…” but never applied again and she was now 70 so why bother. She knew ____ about Galway Kinnell and _____ about Sharon Olds and what else did she need to know? I felt foolish for bringing it up and left it alone. But as I was trying to make my way to the door, my ride trailing far behind me soaking up the appreciation for her set, I stopped to talk with someone at the entrance whom I hadn’t spoken with in a while. He seemed distant, shy, bewildered and talked about being/feeling stuck and not writing. Lacking anything new to say, I began ministering to him about the prospect of going somewhere if just to get out of town, out of his life, out of his head for a minute. To refresh himself and his work. He seemed to not know what language I was speaking.

I had nothing else to say to him. My ride approached and I leapt out of the room ahead of her.

***

I nearly thought my ride was going to ask what I thought of her or her work. I expected her to corner me into a review. She waved off anything I tried to say.

“I recorded it,” she said. “I’ll find out later…” I shut my mouth.

***

These are the two worlds I live between. Worlds that I thought were the same or similar but are obviously not. The rooms are full of poets that periodically share the same people, but they are not the same at all and barely have anything respectful to say to one another.

Years ago, before Poetry Slam even, back when I first began this journey through poetry, I would often sit in on conversations about Page versus Stage poets. Performance artists who sound great, but you just can’t read them. Standing alone in a room with just their work, the poems lose much of their electricity and appeal. S could be guilty of this. I tried reading his book, which is as stubborn a tome as he is a person, and find the book is exhaustingly unreadable and weirdly joyless. Hypnotic in its commitment, its a single poem at roughly 120 pages. Where’s the rest of his amazing poems I’ve heard him do over the years? Where’s the easy exhilaration had in listening to him? Perhaps I should try again, but there isn’t much of a hook to engage me and return with commitment beyond the fact: I know him!

In turn, there are Page poets– who write lovely work but who cannot (or should not) read their own material, and often stamp out any power or joy found in their poems simply in the droll way they read them– reading into their chest dispassionately, as if they held their breath. One of the sweetest, warmest writers I met at workshop is an awful reader of their own work. This reminds me how years ago there was a brother who attended one now-defunct series in S.F. who always used to sign up early and was one of the greatest poets, writers I’ve ever heard. He was someone I still think of and consider, without hyperbole, a genius. He would place his lips directly on the mic and whisper his work, which was deadly personal and close– about death, drugs, relationships, family, abuse. The room would hold its breath and physically lean towards him, listening. He didn’t need to emote. We, knowing he was good enough and worth it, went towards him.

I, naturally, aim for the middle ground. I want to sound good, and I want the poems to work without me. I want anyone to pick up my work and find something of value in it, something to hook themselves with. I also enjoy reading aloud and finding the audience wanting to pay attention. Neither of these things is easy or come naturally. But seems to me an obvious lesson that emerges between practicing and performing. Practicing your craft (writing) is about strengthening your work on the microscopic line level, (which means publishing). Practicing your craft (reciting/reading) is necessary in order to hear what gets received, what gets missed (which means performing, slamming if necessary). Being clear in what you’re communicating. There exists a middle ground between the two, and of course its unmarked. But I think its worth finding and settling in. There’s valuable audiences awaiting both sides of the fence.

But what if improving and getting better at what you do is not the point? What if all you know is all you need to know?

Nickie-Terry
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.

Saul_2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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