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Capitalist Mind: ATL Post #3

28 Jun

This is kind of a dense post. I think some organizers and poets might find it helpful, but if you’re not really concerned with the way shows are run, you might want to skip it. I’ve been putting off writing it for that reason and a few others, so no hard feelings. Next post will be a bunch of Ven’s photos from the trip, so that should be sweet.

I try to live by the credo that business is a realm unto itself. For the most part, personal grievances shouldn’t affect money or career decisions (get that paper). Take this advice with a grain of salt, of course, from a woman who’s had a lot of sustainable success in poetry lately, and plenty of instability in her personal relationships…

There were some issues with the Femme Fatale show long before the night of the competition. As someone explained the situation to me, Sheba was attempting to put together a much more ambitious event than those she’d undertaken in the past. She invited at least 14 poets, coming to Atlanta from all over the US, as far away as Alaska. She coordinated about a dozen of musical acts and partnered with different artists and arts organizations around Atlanta. She asked all the participating poets to submit letters of recommendation (mine was by the Mighty Mike McGee). She also asked that all the poets participate in some kind of community service, a stipulation that really excited me.

Sheba’s an excellent promoter. Anyone who’s ever signed up for her updates knows that the woman is a master of the email blast. However, coming from the professional end, when you’re coming into a show, receiving three or four emails a day, some of them tremendously long, many of which have a confusing mix of personal and business information, makes parsing all that information really overwhelming.

Sheba’s also a master hustler. She’s one of the poets in our community who’s worked with sponsors of all kinds. Coming into Femme Fatale, she got cool schwag donated from area businesses, she got gas card donations from one of her connections, and she even pointed me towards the Poets & Writers events funding application (all of you who host or perform at shows need to check this out; my friend Nicole Sealey works with these folks and they’re very eager to give you money).

I also really appreciated the concept of the show. Outside of the Women of the World Slam, how often do you see fifteen female performance poets of the highest caliber get to throw down? Ocean, Mekkah, T. Miller, and Chauncey were among my competitors that night, and if that doesn’t make for a ridiculously sexy, badass bunch, nothing does.

Unfortunately, as dope as the concept was, the follow-through was inelegant at best, and it really messed with my experience as a whole. The event itself was very beautiful, the crowd and the poets were stunning, the venue was amazing, but the business side was riddled with bad surprises from the moment I tried to walk in the door.

*

The Short List

When I’m dealing with an organizer I haven’t worked with before, I prefer to have all of the following information up front:

*Expectations. What exactly does the organizer or organization expect from me? A thirty-minute set? For me to set up a Facebook event and invite my friends? To bring x number of people in the door? Where do you want me and when? If I’m in an unfamiliar city, how do I get where I need to be?

*Rules. This is one front where many slam organizers seriously falter. If I’m participating in an invitational, I want to know exactly what the rules of the game are: time limits, number of judges, number of rounds, number of competitors, cuts, and penalties of all kinds. This is called being fair. Generally I assume PSI standard rules for most shows, but knowing all of this information up front is essential for those of us who like to consider the strategic element.

*Compensation. If an organizer gives me a verbal guarantee of, say, $100, I’m going to the show expecting at least that. If the organizer, for some reason, doesn’t make as much as expected, I still expect to get paid. Even if that means he’s coming out of pocket (that sounds dirty, huh). If I’m told I’m getting $100, that means $100 flat – not $100 minus a door charge or a hidden registration fee. This is nonnegotiable. If I don’t get paid what I was told, I will probably never collaborate with that organizer again. This can be seriously detrimental to the work the organizer has attempted to do, and to the community at large. Big Sur’s West Coast Regionals, a yearly favorite event of Californian poets, was eventually ruined for just this reason.

*

To plainly say all the stuff that fucked with me: I wasn’t allowed into the venue at first because the woman at the door wanted to charge me, my friend Ven who’d driven me all the way from DC and my friend Karen who was housing me couldn’t get in at all, I never saw a dime to cover travel expenses (except for the door charge, which Sheba agreed to take out of my “travel stipend” after I threatened to leave), although I slammed first in a group of 14 and still had high enough scores to qualify for the second round, I found out after watching the whole hour-long (or was it longer) first round that I’d been disqualified outright for a time penalty.

I was exhausted, y’all. Deeply. Even more broke than I’d been coming in, and totally exhausted. The slam hadn’t started until eleven or twelve, and this was less than a week after the madness WoW. I laughed, said goodnight to Chauncey and T., and walked out.

The evening was mostly salvaged by hanging out afterward with Ven and Karen, my sweetie pies who came back for me, but I was very clear on the fact that I’d been burned, and I wanted nothing to do with this particular way of doing business again.

Zounds! I've been had!

Business vs. Pleasure – WoWPS Post #1

3 May

Will Evans, one of Columbus' many amazing organizers, with Copperhead Red.

Alright, humans. I’ve decided to take the month of May off Facebook in an attempt to improve my quality of life. I’m making exceptions for all stuff photo-related, and tagging folks on blogs – but I’m not responding to any comments, tags or posts on FB at this time. In other news: after years of courting, I asked myself to be my girlfriend – and I said yes. We are very much in love.

When last we talked story, I’d just finished an intensive mini-tour of New England and was on my way to Columbus for the Women of the World Poetry Slam. I was a little burned-out and ambivalent going in. My experiences with individual competition had been disappointing – and given the level of exposure I already had within the family, I wasn’t sure my investment (registration, travel, hotel, living expenses) would be well-spent. But a family reunion’s a family reunion, right? Leave it to me to let my heart come before business – at least in theory…

Family milling about before prelims.

***

What Makes a Great National Poetry Event

Obviously the concerns of money, relationship with the city, and all the professional stuff matter, but as a participating poet/volunteer who doesn’t really have to worry about the behind-the-scenes stuff, I have my own checklist as to what makes an event successful. The Columbus organizers did a stellar job on all these fronts.

Reasonable walking radius. Most poets don’t arrive at these events with their own transportation, so being able to walk from one venue to the next with ease is a real treat. The Columbus venues were almost all located within a few blocks of the hotel.

Good relationship with the hotel. This makes a huge difference. Nasty hotel staff have seriously fucked up some poetry moments for me. I don’t know how much the organizers can control this, except to make sure the hotel has some sense of who they’re dealing with, and to get us a 24-hour room in which to wile out. I really liked the hotel staff in Columbus. The doorman was a darling, and the cleaning staff very sweet and courteous.

Free food. Most of us are broke and don’t take good care of ourselves, so a free meal is a big deal. Especially a delicious one. Columbus offered free soul food before finals, which I hear was excellent indeed.

Appropriate venues. Cafes with sass, bars or clubs prepared to devote the evening to bouts, and accessible blackbox theaters are all fine examples. You want spots where ordinary folks will be anyway, or be near, without the poets having to compete with TVs or surly patrons for attention. The venues should also be sized appropriately, so a crowd of fifty doesn’t feel like a crowd of five. In both my preliminary venues and the finals venue, I felt the organizers had done an excellent job picking the proper spaces.

Good example of a nice, packed venue.

Good staffing. Impartial, professional volunteers make a big difference, too. Hosts make an obvious difference in the pacing and quality of a show, but all the background folks – official and otherwise – keep the event as a whole feeling organic. Columbus felt seamless.

Two of our handsome volunteers.

Asses in seats. There’s nothing more disheartening than having a room full of hot poets ready to spit – but no non-poet audience to watch or judge. This has been an issue at every national event I’ve attended – but Columbus did a good job. Bouts generally started on time, and I wasn’t witness to any truly desperate scrambling for judges.

***

With all that said, this was still the least fun I’ve ever had at a national event. The poetry was phenomenal, of course – what I got to hear of it. These months later, the two poems I heard for the first time in prelims that have really stayed with me would have to be Chauncey Beaty’s fruit flies poem (um, guffaw), and Rachel McKibbens’ last love poem (chills). When I’m competing, I don’t get to listen as closely or attentively as I’d like, so I’m afraid I didn’t get to hear or properly retain a lot of amazing poetry. That’s part of why I didn’t have that much fun. I was serious. I stayed serious through prelims, even after the bouts. I wasn’t around to play with my friends very much – but hey. I made it to finals stage. That was the goal all along.

Slacker is NOT spelled L-A-U-R-A.

15 Apr

My darlings, my dears,

I have so much I want to tell you about the last month or so, but I simply can’t do it just yet. After making Finals Stage at the Women of the World Poetry Slam, I went to a competition in Atlanta, moved to Chicago, started writing a poem a day for National Poetry Writing Month, and just found out I’ve been selected to be a finalist for a press that might publish a book for me. The latter means, however, that I need to submit a complete manuscript (40+ poems) in less than two weeks. I don’t have the writing juice to concentrate on that and post here – at least, not without doing the love we share a grave injustice.

Wish me luck – and I’ll be back in May.

Earning My Vanity Plates.

9 Feb

I attended three shows in Vancouver, each enjoyable in its way, each very different. I apologize for not having more pictures, but Vancouver is very dark. Here are the shows, in chronological order.

Pathos, Punchlines, & Painkillers: We walked all the way down Commercial Drive to see Chris Masson’s show, part of Vancouver’s Theatrefest. The venue was some kind of old folks’ home. There weren’t any indicators that the festival was taking place, and no one from the organizing committee was there to work the door. Hard on Chris, who had to wing it as the first performer of the evening. (Remember earlier when I was talking about the importance of great organizers? Um, yeah.)

Masson chagrined.

The show itself really impressed me, though. It was Chris’ one-man telling of his manic courtship with Nora online, and through her unexpected battle with cancer. His energy and dynamism positively shone, and the tale proved bizarre and touching – as true love stories ought to be.

Thundering Word Heard: I met up with Sean McGarragle, Vancouver’s organizer extraordinaire, and we walked from his neighborhood to Cafe Montmartre.

McGarragle.

The venue has the romantic French cafe aesthetic down cold. Small tables intimately nestled in a small space, warm red lighting, food and drink, and a small but prominent stage. The list was long past full long before the evening officially started, so Sean and I sat with Aedan Saint (the organizer of the new Village Poetry Slam) to watch the show unfold.

Thundering Word is Vancouver’s longest-running open mic, and it has the glow all good, established open readings do. People brought comedy, music, and poetry, some of which was quite good. As a slammer, open mics often feel like they’re running at the speed of mud through a sieve, but let’s face it, they’re important. Forums like these give everyone – even those to whom slam is forbidding, or forbidden – a voice. I like to go to a good open mic about once a month, maybe every other month. It restores my humanity.

After the show, Sean and I went to The Narrow with Chris Gilpin and Fernando. Lo, we drank mightily, and I got to pick Sean’s brain about organizing, and the Canadian scene. Sean’s a smart and charming guy, and he may be the most organized organizer I’ve met (dude uses an Excel spreadsheet to plot the dates and features of all the Canadian slams, wowee wow). Chris Gilpin’s a very talented poet – ask him how he’s making the sonnet exciting again. And Fernando I don’t know so good. Suffice it to say I enjoyed the night in its entirety. No better way to follow up an open mic than with a bunch of people who take poetry very seriously indeed.

***

INTERLUDE: A Poet’s Guide to Organization

We poets are not especially known for being responsible – but when we commit more fully to the profession, we must grow. Much as I’d love a personal assistant, a manager or a handler, I can’t afford one – so I’m forced to wear many hats indeed. Here are a few of ’em.

Writer. You should already have some system of your own to keep your writings organized. My current system involves a notebook with works-in-progress, prompts and ideas, plus folders in my laptop separated into essays, clean page poems, retired poems, 1-minute poems, &c. This is the most personal and essential element to your career, so organize in a way that’s useful and sensible to you.

Performer. Carry product. Books, CDs, DVDs, t-shirts, whatever you can get. Have a means of carrying your product to gigs. I have a little red briefcase, but anything works. It’s nice to have one item of appropriate size that you can simply leave your product in throughout your travels. Also, consider keeping a list of poems you did at any given venue on any given night (Jon Sands keeps a very thorough record on his laptop). At the very least, keep a little notebook handy with a list of poems you have on deck.

set list for the evening.

Booking Agent. This is the messy part. It’s hard to keep up on which venues are running, who’s in charge, and what dates work when (unless you’re McGarragle). The most important thing: keep a list of what you’ve booked, when and where. If you want to go rocket science, keep a current list of organizers/scene contacts, keep track of how much everybody pays, best ways to get to and from cities, &c. I like keeping at least one schedule up online so I can easily update it and point it out to others. It’s nice to have a US map handy, too; I remember Adam Rubinstein had a big, beautiful map stuck full of push pins to prepare for his first national tour…

Promoter. John Survivor Blake has a great method of using Facebook to promote: he organizes his FB friends by region, then when he creates an event page, he only tags folks in that region to let them know he’s performing. So when he hits you up, you know to pay attention. Beyond that, it’s pretty loose. Reconnect with folks you know in the area a few weeks before you hit a city, and tell them to come out and bring their friends.

Traveler. Try, try to keep your bags in order. Pack smart the first time, everything in its proper place, and you’ll thank yourself for weeks. And do make sure you have places to stay wherever you wind up.

***

The last show I attended in Canada happened to be the one where I was featured.

The Vancouver Slam

The Van Slam’s been running for fourteen years, many of them at the venue where it is today, Café Deux Soleils. It’s a dream venue. Big and beautiful with low lighting, a hearty stage and good beer. And full of people who want to hear your every word. *sighs wistfully*

Nora Smithhisler hosted for the first time that night. She did a bang-up job in heels so sexy Boise blushed.

Pretty, ain't she?

Angus performed a poem I loved, even though I could not fully fathom the nerdy depths to which he dove.

Sweetcheeks.

Ain't he sweet?

My real pleasant surprise of the evening was Duncan Shields, who I’d never heard. He performed one of the sexiest geek poems I’ve had the pleasure of hearing, a smart and hilarious tribute to gamer girls.

go, Duncan, go!

Performing was the real plum, though. I’d been practicing my set for days – a hodgepodge of song fragments and poems sewn together in what I hoped might become my new feature style. It was so good. So, so good. Probably the best feature I’ve ever done. It felt like pure magic. The audience was into simply everything I did, and we loved each other, we were seahorses and fireworks on the long road, yes, delightful.

When I was through, a pretty blonde boy (different one from NYE) propositioned me. Seriously. He told me he’d heard my miscegenation poem, and his place was just down the way if I wanted to get down. I laughed, very, very awkwardly. He was very direct, you see, and I still think of myself as someone only other poets and bold old men try to seduce. This groupie thing is very new and bizarre. Lucky for me, Jess was there to shout mean things at the scary, scary boy until he left me alone. 😛

A few of us ended the night at a little club, boozing it up. I don’t usually drink before I perform, so I was trying desperately to catch up. To no avail. Canadians can throw down. C.R. Avery showed up at some point and asked a lot of questions. Then we all crawled into arms if we could find ’em, curled up like snails, and slept like we’d never done a bad thing in all our long lives.

Sean & Nora.

Bullet With Butterfly Wings.

22 Jan

Chalkboard in the Temple Bar bathroom.

Most organizers in the poetry scene have to be both steel and sensitivity. The former is a necessary trait for any person who’s interested in running a business successfully. This trait can be even more important when working with artists; most of us are horrendous flakes. Many of us are lazy, self-absorbed, ungrateful, and rife with bad habits – and I love us, yes I do.

But imagine you’re busting your ass to put on the best possible event, working with a venue, cajoling audience and local poets to attend shows, very rarely receiving pay or much credit for the hours you put in, and also having to deal with, for example, an extremely lazy hedonistic night owl loner crashing on your couch for days, eating your food and chasing your (wo)men. *clears throat* However, perhaps most importantly, you also have to be able to turn people down when they ask for features. Even your friends.

But then, to be a good organizer, it’s still crucial to actually love great craft and showmanship. The organizers who lose that love get bitter, and that affects the whole feel of a scene. Even a scene that stays successful on a superficial level – making money, getting press, drawing in crowds – can be extremely unsuccessful in terms of loyalty among artists or quality of work.

Longest intro to Bob Huston ever.

I shadowed Bob around Bellingham for a day. A self-described “person person”, as opposed to a “people person”, Bob has connections to lots of folks in Bellingham. We couldn’t walk a few blocks downtown without Bob making small conversation with someone he knew – smile or joke included. That’s a quality I admire, sure (though I don’t covet it), and obviously an excellent one for an organizer to have. Also good for a poet: as Tara Hardy put it during an iWPS workshop about touring, poets should begin at home. Get local shows, connect to local organizations, and build from there.

We bounced around with our laptops. Bellingham is very pretty. The mountains and fresh air are serious, and so is Bellingham Bay, a silver panther sleeping on the western edge of town. It enchanted me the same way Ithaca, NY did the first time I saw it; overall, Bellingham reminded me strongly, poignantly, of the small New England towns near my high school and college. Not the most diverse town, of course, but probably a pretty good place to grow up.

Bob’s spent most of his life in Bellingham. Given the fact that I’ve had many homes, temporary and otherwise, I found the story of his growth interesting. Having a constant foundation allows one to build in very different ways. Relatively speaking, not a lot of poets in the scene know about Bellingham – but the open mic is fifteen years old, and, as mentioned in an earlier post, it’s of exceptional quality.

Always working.

Besides running the slam, Bob’s begun a small press (mentioned in an earlier post) to showcase local poets, and he’s very recently started traveling for himself. A man of plans and schemes, for sure. I like being around people who are driven. And I had a clear sense that Bob really intends to grow himself and his scene, and that he has the means to do both.

***

INTERLUDE: Tribute.

When people can’t or don’t want to buy books from me, or aren’t satisfied giving me a simple compliment, high-five or hug, they sometimes offer tokens of their admiration. Here are a few I’ve received:

* A wish stone to throw in the river. (Portland)

The other side says, "Laura's Skipping Stone"

* A drawing of myself from behind saying, “Hips + shoulders + hair – hair wins!” (Atlanta)

* A rose made out of a napkin. (Boise)

* A blood-spattered sheet of paper with an Aldous Huxley book recommendation scrawled on it. (Berkeley)

* A scarf someone thought was mine. (New York)

***

That night, we went back to the Temple Bar for a while, then Bob took me to Honey Moon and introduced me to Linda, who was very sweet to us, and who has the most beautiful tattoo.

Pretty, ain't it?

Little Guy was dancing around the room, and we drank the house’s honey wine. A wonderful last night in Bellingham, the little town that could, and will.

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.

The Hipsters of Portland, Oregon Have the Most Impressive Donuts (with apologies to J.W. Baz)

6 Jan

After a long, hard sleep (in the spare room, hooray!), Eirean and Charissa suggested we go for breakfast. The choices were a make-your-own pancakes joint or a Swedish place. I decided to be loyal to my blood for once in my life (nods to a motherland), and we went Swede for the morning. I’m not terribly fond of American-style breakfasts, with all their eggs and egg-based breadiness, so it was nice to have enticing entree options for a change. I ordered a breakfast board that included fruit, yogurt, meat, cheese, fish, and brown bread, and a mug of hot cider with a pleasant bite of ferment.

yum...

Wonderful! The variety delighted palate and stomach alike. The decor was also lovely, a nice reconceptualization of Swedish style, somewhat spare but warm, with rich stained wood and splashes of assertive pastel.

After breakfast, we headed to Hawthorne Avenue, which might be termed Hipster Boulevard. I suppose I don’t have a great overall impression of the species since the San Francisco strain can be so rude and pretentious, but the Portland hipsters seemed pretty nice. They were quiet, mellow, riding bikes around and moving gently through the world. We walked around the neighborhood for some time, passing cafes aplenty, fashionable secondhand shops, and stores featuring beautiful artisanal goods.

I'm a sucker for jewels.

The foremost point was the coffee, though. Eirean works in the coffee trade, which makes him the least intimidating drug dealer of all time, and also uniquely qualified to point out what is, in some respects, obvious: Portland is bonkers for coffee. Pretty much every time we paused for thought or breath, someone bought a cup. Eirean wowed me by comparing coffee in Portland to wine in California, and describing mystical cafes where sacred cups of joe are sold for $20 a pop. At this, I could only shake my head…

Being on the road is kind of the most sensible time for me to shop. I never have much money, and whatever I buy I have to physically haul around for the remainder of my tour, so many a frivolous calamity is averted. I like looking, though. Brilliant toys, jewelry, cards, clothes – seeing beautiful things pleases me.

Neat toys, yeah?

If people have made these lovely items, it means people are thinking lovely, creative thoughts, which feeds and inspires me to do the same. I saw an interview with Vivienne Westwood, punk rock fashionista, on the plane ride over. She said, quite well I thought, that we all ought to put energy into developing our personal styles, to dress up our beauty and play to our strengths and joys instead of trying so damn hard to blend in and look like everybody else (for the record, she’s the one who brought the Circle-A anarchy symbol into contemporary culture).

*

INTERLUDE: How to Develop Your Personal Style

I didn’t really begin to understand my image until I started to slam. Dating a rockabilly boy helped to spur that transition, of course: when the person you love and spend all your time with thinks a lot about his image, that tends to be contagious. Slam solidified that for me, though. When I worked with Ekabhumi, one of my coaches in the Bay, he stressed the importance of understanding how your audience reads you onstage. As I continued to grow, I had to get accustomed to the fact that people were going to photograph and videotape me, and that those images would be readily accessible to the world.

Having your own style is key to continued success in this game, I think. You want to make yourself into an icon in some ways. As a slammer, it’s obviously important to have your own voice as a writer and performer, but the clothes do make the woman in some respects. Here are a few very simple tips to get you started if you haven’t really thought about it before.

* Choose clothes that fit. In college, my friend Claudia (a self-proclaimed genius) gave me this tip, and it’s by far the most important. You can rock absolutely anything if it fits your body well. Don’t be a fool and blow your money on something unflattering just because it’s branded or supposedly fashionable. Same goes for color: learn which colors look good on you, and build your palette based on them. (I just used “palate” and “palette” in the same post. Thank you, I’ll be here all night.)

* Buy within your means. It can be worth investing in a few well-made, expensive pieces that you know you can work in a number of ways, but don’t knock the less expensive goods. Again, don’t bother with items that don’t fit – but dig around in your local secondhand stores (Sheba), maybe your neighborhood Ross (Sonya). What you find might surprise you.

* Learn to sew. Making your own clothes, or altering them, is by far the best way to get exactly what you want. Most of us don’t have off-the-rack bodies, so being able to tweak something or create it from scratch is the best way to accomplish the Prime Directive.

* Talent scout. If you’re really at a loss as to how to pair colors, fabrics, and patterns, don’t be afraid to look at what you like on other people. Look at fashion magazines if it won’t depress you (it depresses me). Keep your eyes open when you walk around the streets of your town or city and try to get a sense of what you think looks cool on other people. I’m a big fan of learning at least a little of what’s come before, the better to subvert with grace.

*

I suppose I should applaud hipsters for making an effort to bring style and art into everyday life. I mean, it took a hipster town to bring me my luxurious Swedish breakfast, didn’t it? And a do-it-yourself pancake house? That’s bonkers, and fun. I also meant what I said about the donuts.

Impressive, no?

But I’m a little uncomfortable, in any case. Leaving the obvious question of racial diversity to the side for a moment: having the luxury and resources to develop personal style, or to create baroque pastries, presupposes a certain level of economic comfort. Even Westwood, who made art using materials that were considered cheap and vulgar, had access to resources that most people in the world don’t. I guess I just don’t want to forget that having the freedom to explore the realm of style is a tremendous luxury in and of itself. Art for art’s sake as opposed to art forged out of political or practical necessity – the tension between the two remains.