Come Water Walk With Me.

14 Jan

The next morning, I jumped on the bus to Bellingham. We had a brief layover in Seattle; as the weather was bright and beautiful, I decided to sit outside. Engaged in conversation with a man who asked what I did for a living. I responded with a huge grin on my face. I can’t help but smile when people ask me that, partly because I love my job, partly because I fully realize how absurd “poet” must sound. He asked me for a poem, and I gave him my poem for Patrick, “The Saddest Man on Maui”. He listened carefully. When I was finished, he said I’d almost made him cry.

This was huge for me. Ekabhumi, my coach on the Berkeley team, has a development technique he uses with his poets called the “walking exercise”, in which he walks his poets around his neighborhood in Berkeley and has them recite their poems – first to him, then to random folks he stops on the street. It’s an exercise in agility, courage, and magnetism. I used to have particular trouble with this one. I was very shy performing my poems one-on-one (essentially) for strangers, and generally felt the performative style of my early work was too big, the content too risque, for such intimate sharing. The fact that I was eager to share in this case definitely speaks to my progress.

***

INTERLUDE: How to Choose the Right Poems

In our last interlude, I mentioned the importance of reading the house when choosing a set. I’d like to elaborate on that point a bit. Choosing the right poems is one of the most difficult questions a poet faces, partly because it’s so important. When you’re still building your name, as I am, mishandling your set can mean the difference between someone buying your book or not, mentioning you to a friend or not, inviting you to their show or not, and all these things matter tremendously when no one knows your name. Besides, people paid good money to see you, or at least invested time and attention. Choosing your set is always something of a crap shoot, dependent as it is on the fickleness of human nature, but do your best to give them a great show.

* Be Yourself. Written into the contract for Boston’s Cantab show is an exhortation to poets to perform the poems for which they’re known instead of trying to wow everyone with their literary chops. When you get booked at a venue that’s famous for stellar poetry, it’s easy to feel unnerved because you want to make the best possible impression. While I was a Berkeley regular, I saw a lot of poets fumble their sets thusly. Push yourself, yes, try new things, yes, but don’t foist a batch of sonnets on a crowd just to convince them you know how to read.

* Balance. Before performing a set for the Young Chicago Authors, I asked Robbie Q what I should spit for the kids. He said, “Challenge them, then reward them.” This is an excellent rule for any feature. Bring more difficult work, yes, but also bring your anthems, your thigh-slappers, and your tear-jerkers.

* Read the Night. Most features go on after a bunch of poets have already performed – in the open mic, the slam, or both. Get a feel for what kinds of poems move the audience. Listen for what hasn’t yet been said. You can score major points by keeping both these things in mind.

* Compose with Care. Ekabhumi likens a feature to a symphony, and it’s certainly helpful to think in these terms. You want your poems to transition smoothly from one to the next, especially as far as mood goes. Conventional wisdom generally dictates that one should begin and end big, with humor or/and power, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true for opening a show. I agree that ending on an uplifting note makes everyone feel better in the end.

* Work the Room. Think of which of your poems might be especially suited to the space itself (nature poems in outdoor venues, drinking poems at bars, Bay Area poems in Berkeley), and craft your set around these crown jewels.

***

I arrived in Bellingham that night and sort of stared, slack-jawed, at the landscape for a little while. It’s been mostly an East Coast and Midwestern existence for the past year, so yeah, wow. Pines and mist and bright moon over mountains. Bob met me at the station, elegantly stroking his little dog (commonly known as Little Guy).

Bob.

We dropped my stuff off at his house, I cleaned up a bit, then we went for a nosh.

Shall we? We shall.

Bellingham has an amazing little gourmet bar/restaurant called the Temple Bar. The wine list is very good, the food largely (if not entirely?) local and sustainable, and quite delicious. I generally don’t drink before a feature – it dulls my nervous edge and undercuts my enunciation – but I was charmed by Bob’s cosmopolitan air. We spoke for a while over a lovely little cheese plate, then headed to the show at the Anker Cafe.

Bustling crowd.

Eirean told me, before I left Portland, that Bellingham was the “academic reading”, and Bob referred to the regulars as “sharks”. When the open mic began, I understood perfectly. The quality of the poetry in Bellingham is simply fucking phenomenal. It might be the most consistently good and challenging show I’ve attended. Among the bright lights: Ryler Dustin, of course, whose technique has really blossomed in the years since I saw him last,

Ryler.

and a poet named Robert Lashley.

Rockstar.

If you haven’t heard this cat, find him. He’s very, very good. One of the best new poets on the scene. Bob’s new press publishes his book.

Of course, good poetry is nothing without an excellent audience, and Bellingham has that, too. The crowd is diverse in terms of age and opinion. People listen very well, and respond loudly and with approval even at tricky lines and oblique metaphors. They loved my work! We were all happy happy at the night’s end, and headed to the Copper Hog for our own little after party. Miracle the most, perhaps: we hung out for an hour or two and continued to talk about poetry. Not about slam drama, not about the business of poetry – but poetry itself. I went to bed that night feeling like a river dragon who’d found the sea.

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