Archive | February, 2011

Dear Laura: Stop Pretending You’re James Joyce.

19 Feb

Been trying to shake this little disturbance in my heart the past day or so. I guess I’ve been grappling with a question that isn’t simple, that involves a funny mix of the professional and personal.

The other day, I was officially un-offered a gig to feature and workshop at a conference that’ll be happening this summer. I attended the conference for the first time last year, and a friend of mine, who’s on the planning committee, really loves my work and thought I’d be a great fit.

For the first time in the years she’s been spearheading the conference, her suggestion was vetoed. Based on my behavior at last year’s event, it was decided that I’m not “collegial” enough to be a representative of University X.

The decision was based on two major factors: my bad-mouthing the major showcase of the conference from the back while it was happening, and my missing a workshop (with a phenomenal poet) for which I’d been given a coveted slot.

The major showcase of the conference really bothered me, no point in trying to hide that now. This was a very typical auditorium Q&A with an author of note, the headliner of the conference, and it drove me crazy. There seemed to be no effort or attention paid to staging or lighting, the questions felt really dull, and in general, nothing dynamic was happening. As someone who’s grown accustomed to poetry slams and performances meant to grab one by the throat, this interview was very disappointing. I had no qualms about saying (far too loudly, apparently) that this sort of reading was verymuch indicative of the split between academics and everyone else, and it was no wonder people had such a low opinion of literature if this was the best we could do.

This is the point where you get to mutter, “Shouldna been talken shit.”

Yes, I was rude. I could have kept my mouth shut, if only for the sake of the people in the audience who’d worked hard to put the event together or/and paid to attend the conference. Some folks in the audience were really excited to hear what the speaker had to say, and I was so caught in my reaction, I was essentially disrespecting all of them instead of offering constructive feedback to relevant parties later on.

As for the latter complaint, I stayed out too late at the bar after my friends had left, then, in a kind of nightmarish wonderland, my phone died and I couldn’t find my way home. I was in a small, unfamiliar Southern city, and, although I still own a vagina, perhaps it wasn’t properly on display: I couldn’t get a cab to stop for me over the course of several hours. Five or so cabs did drive right by me when I tried to hail them. I tried stopping at gas stations to ask for directions, given the little map my host had drawn, but no one I asked had any idea where I was going. I also tried to borrow a cell phone from a number of different kids who were wandering around (being fraternal, I gather), but no one would even make eye contact with me.

The sun was up by the time I ran into a cabbie who agreed to take me and who knew the area where I was going. My friend stopped by to take me to that morning’s workshop about an hour later. I honestly thought hard before saying no, but I was too exhausted on all levels.

Hours of wandering. I feel pretty nauseous even remembering that night, honestly. I did drink too much, which was an awful call in that situation. I should have taken the rides home my fellow poets offered earlier in the night, and I should have charged my phone before going out. I was overconfident in my ability to navigate a city I’d just arrived in. I own all of this, I seriously do. But there’s a certain kind of unpleasantness that was afforded me that night, as a strange brown girl in a Southern city. It was invisibility. It was like being a ghost shouting at the top of her lungs in an effort to commune with the living.

The other day, when I spoke to my friend (who was incredibly sweet and apologetic about having to rescind her offer to feature), she mentioned some of the amazing people I’d met after slamming at the conference on the first night. She mentioned speaking to several women who’d been blown away by what I did, who said, “I want to know how to do THAT.” Somehow, that part hurts me more than the rejection itself. Because of my recklessness, I won’t get a chance to teach these women what I’ve learned. I’ve stolen an opportunity from them that they might not find again.

I don’t know quite where to go from here. One of the reasons I hated academia was because I don’t much like diplomacy for its own sake. I’m not a huge fan of political machinations, or the necessity to conform to someone else’s code. My ability to speak and live freely, as politically incorrectly as I like, has been hard-won, and I don’t want to surrender that. But it’s apparent to me now: if I want the freedom to go wherever I choose and to teach whomever I like, that means limiting my freedoms in other ways.

I honestly don’t know what this means for my future. I don’t know exactly what lesson I want to take from all this. For now, it just feels good to be honest, to share with you what’s on my mind. Thanks for listening.

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Where the Heart Is.

15 Feb

In conversation with my friend Patrick the other night, he mentioned that griots used to be considered exorcists of a kind – that spoken word is, in some ways, a method of casting out demons. This makes good sense to me: I’ve seen powerful poems summon ghosts or spirits, and I’ve seen poets enter states of trance or possession while reciting or flowing.

In general, being a decent poet means grappling with human history. It means facing it, shouldering it, digesting it and sharing it. Taking on the burden of a species (or a race, a gender, a nationality, a tribe, a family, or an individual) is heavy spiritual lifting. In order to safely lift and carry immense weight, one ought to have some sort of training beforehand. Lack of preparation can lead to devastating damage.

I don’t feel most poets adequately prepare ourselves for the immensity of our burden. I think this is part of the reason so many of us get depressed and vulnerable and sick so often. A poet who only performs once a week hopefully has a lot of time to process and prepare, and probably has a room and a city of her own to regenerate, but road dogs like me sometimes get caught in the slipstream. This is one of the reasons I think being on tour too long for one stretch is begging for trouble. Touring is not the same as vacationing or travelling.

One of my last nights in Oakland, I hit an incredibly low point. I felt drained and lonely. Empty and hungry, sad and angry. Needy. Despairing. Homeless. It was a sort of soul sickness from giving so much and being so open to so many different audiences, and simply not nurturing myself enough.

There are times, though, that the road truly has your back.

I performed at a show at Butte College in Chico the next night, and it absolutely brought me back to all the right reasons I do this. The gig entailed a workshop followed by a slam, followed by a feature. I workshopped a group of folks, mostly kids from the college, on the identity poem, and we did some awesome performance critique as a group. Then I got to show those kids, who’d pretty much had blind faith in me, what was possible when I sacrificed for the slam. The end of the night didn’t leave much time for a feature, but I performed a few poems that left the audience howling for more.

The result? A whole bunch of people came up to me afterwards and said they’d never been to a slam before, and now they wanted to go, and maybe try it out for themselves. A whole bunch of young poets came up to me and told me they were inspired by and in ❤ with me. I impressed the veterans, folks like Tazuo, Sarah Myles Spencer, Foxie Brown, and Kyle Bowen. And I sold a whole lot of books (hey, you can visit the Write Bloody store and buy my book just like they did, which is almost as cool as having been there).

In short, I felt absolutely refreshed, delighted, and validated (a few handsome young men even took their shirts off when I performed “The Body Beautiful”). A great show is an excellent cure for the road-weary, I guess. If we, as poets, act as kind of communal exorcists in the culture at large, it seems we can also draw strength from the power that emanates from a vibrant community.

It’s possible I’ve been playing too many video games.

Anyway, the grind. The job gets me down sometimes, but the good days more than make up for it. I’m grateful for this crazy life. It’s good to be home in Chicago again, and it was good to rediscover home on the road. ❤

The Spice of Life.

9 Feb

Lovely, lovely time at the Seattle Poetry Slam last night. The crowd listened and laughed at my silly jokes. Plus they bought so many books! You should buy one too! Seattle is wise and would never lie to you.

My last show in Oakland happened last week, at Tourettes Without Regrets‘ Fuck Valentine’s show. I’ve made no secret of the fact that Tourettes is my favorite show in the nation, appealing to my bawdy and highbrow aesthetics, as well as my sense of wonder. Recently, it’s occurred to me that many of the shows I most enjoy share a similar framework: The Encyclopedia Show, Real Talk Live, and The Oversocial Mofo Revue all come to mind.

This has led me, recently, to grandly proclaim that we are entering the golden age of the variety show. The recent surge in the popularity of burlesque has something to do with this. The punk rock generation coming of age enough to own and run venues and host shows is related, too. Hip hop becoming a cultural fixture matters. Slam blooming and maturing matters. Stand-up gaining more and more validity matters. The gradual crumbling of the big recording companies, the rise of easy online tools for independent artists to share their work – it seems this has led to a different kind of focus on grassroots art.

I love the variety show for a few reasons. For one, I actually really do prefer variety. I’m the gal that prefers to nibble off several plates than to gorge myself on one entree. I like travel, I like dating, I like collage. Maybe it’s partly a multiculti thing; maybe it’s just where I’m at as an artist.

For some time, I’ve felt frustrated by my own limitations as a performer. The possibilities the stage affords are immeasurable, but for most of my slam career I’ve simply stood onstage speaking words. There’s tremendous power in this, of course, but I’ve always wanted to push my own boundaries and see what I can do. Artists like Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Mike McGee, C.R. Avery, and Patricia Smith, who reinvented the monologue… To a certain extent, slam is inherently genre-bending, but folks like this, who do it very consciously and well, inspire me to go new places.
I’ve been working on this. About a year ago at the Vancouver Slam, I tried out a new technique (stolen from Ed Mabrey), and used bits of song to transition between some of the poems in my feature set. The crowd loved it, and I tried the gimmick a few more times over the following months, gradually gaining confidence. Around this time, I wrote “Celibate Boyfriend” and “Salem 1994”, the first poems of mine to actively incorporate song.

The next level, for me, is working with focused, talented musicians to craft even more flawless, transcendent experiences (Derrick Brown is really excellent at this). I’ve been talking to my sister, B. Steady of The Lost Bois, about collaboration, which is already yielding some exciting results. I’m also in serious conversation with one poet in particular who shares my vision of creating a comprehensive experience with poetry and music (no spoilers yet).

This is just to say that if variety truly is the spice of life, I actually do want to be your spice girl, my darlings. Stay tuned for the next revolution of Planet Yes. ❤