Relish What You Get.

9 Jan

Later in Portland, Charissa and Eirean took me to Powell’s, also known as the City of Books, a 68,000-square foot mecca for lovers of the printed word. I worked in independent bookstores for two solid years, so I’d heard rumors of Powell’s in the updraft, but I really didn’t remember any of that when my Portland guides led me in and I saw the throngs of humanity lined up to buy books, and the massive color-coded key guiding we tourists to sections on any given floor.

Okay, I was flummoxed. Crowds stress me out, and I’m no longer in the habit of running my fingers down spines. Except in my imagination. *clears throat* But when I don’t know where to go, I go to poetry, of course, so that was my first stop.

Before we continue this friendship, it’s crucial that you know: there’s a side of me that’s an old white man. Specifically a 70s-something, heavily bespectacled man with a frothy white beard and much cantankerousness, and a mind that browses of its own free will (I NEVER gave it permission to go into the Restricted Section of Hogwarts). So I’ll admit, I’m not in a poetry-buying phase. I’m feeling good artists’ journals right now (Camus & Basho; seeking Van Gogh and Da Vinci, open to other suggestions). I still read and hear a lot of poetry of course, seeing as it’s my fucking profession.

I’ll break it down a bit: I can’t stand most prose. It’s usually terribly sloppy (most fiction), or so dense as to be unreadable (most nonfiction). I also can’t stand most plays or poetry (they tend to be stilted), my own included. I like articles best because I can stop reading them after the first 2-4 paragraphs if they suck. There’s no false hope. I generally feel compelled to give books a chance once I begin them, and boy howdy, have I wasted my life.

Maybe a year ago I read an online article by a woman living in New York, a text some might group as Third Wave Feminist or Gen-X, or something. The author had dated men and dated men, yet never found her Progressive Prince Charming – and now? She finds she’s much more dismissive of men than she was when younger, so she’s less likely to settle down than ever. She judged herself pretty harshly for it all, too, in my recollection (if anyone remembers reading this, please send me a link).

Anyhow, that’s my stance towards most books. I’ve accidentally cultivated a “been there, done that” mentality. I’m still a fan of a great book, as I’m sure the aforementioned jaded woman is still a fan of an excellent date/lay/conversation/friendship. But when you’ve been hearing the same game for years, true, shit gets tired. So I leafed through some poetry, some blank journals, looked for a friendly yet thorough “1001 Nights” text, asked the clerk for Lorca’s “In Search of Duende” (I will have absorbed a copy newly into my body fat by the time we next converse, Roger), to no avail, and browsed the graphic novels. I left with a Decomposition Book to scrawl in, Basho’s “Narrow Road to the Interior” (trans. Sam Hamill), and Ho Che Anderson’s “King”. Yep, I was bookstore, once. When I buy a book, it means something.

We rested at home for a while before leaving for the slam.

INTERLUDE: A Poet’s Guide to Acting Like a Professional

We’ve talked a bit about presentation and staying less diva when offered shelter. Here’s the “How-To” that maybe matters most: how to carry yourself at a show.

* Treat Every Show Reverently. Some say poetry/art makes no difference in the world. That’s bullshit. I can list, without pause, poem after poem, painting after painting, &c., and I can tell you exactly how each has consciously changed my life (to say nothing of the subconscious). So maybe you’re playing a small room. Maybe you aren’t competing or opening up for KRS-1 or Mos Def. You’re an asshole if you don’t respect the crowd in Podunk as you would the crowd in Metropolis, and, in fact, your elitist ass can stop reading everything I write now and forever, amen. You don’t deserve to be a performance poet. Slam is a fucking populist art, and without it, spoken word as we know it wouldn’t exist. And go to hell.

* Make Sure Your Money’s Right. If you’re dealing with strangers who other poets/organizers don’t stand behind, have a contract ready (another Sonya Renee tip). The scene isn’t as Wild West as it was in days of yore, but be smart. Always have credit or dollars on hand, if possible, just in case, and don’t deal with people who seem too shady.

* Read the House. A great poet leads. A great performer leads. But read your space. Judge the intensity of poems you should use, and whether or not going off-mic, crowd-walking, or bantering to excess is welcome. Most often, you have at least half an open mic or slam to fine-tune your set; get the basics down before arriving at the venue, and adjust as necessary at the last minute.

*Stay Sober. Just a suggestion. I mean, as though you were touching another human being for the first time, every time. There’s space to do whatever else after the show.

* Stick Your Landing. I co-opted this term from the world of gymnastics a few years back to emphasize the importance of ending a poem with power and intention. As in delivering the kind of final line that gives you good chills as opposed to bad indigestion. The same tactic applies to performance as a whole. When you walk off the stage, you must stay bright and greet people, juggle and banter and sell (when possible). Compliment folks on their poems, genuinely. Talk about touring and your life as though no one’s ever asked before.


I enjoyed the Portland Slam a lot. Much great poetry. Excellent intensity from the audience. Fucking great venue, great energy from Eirean. The crowd was a bit light, but it was two days after Xmas, first nasty weather in a while in a scene that still needs to regain its legs, and the first time in a new spot. Eirean seemed a little embarrassed; as an old-school poet and organizer, I’m sure it’s hard to feel like you haven’t packed a house to the gills when a poet you like comes through. I felt good, though. Heard some excellent work. If all goes well in the building, Portland is a scene to watch, for sure. My poems transmitted, and I got a lot of hugs and good talk. Slept like I’d done my job right that night.


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