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Heart, Lungs, Legs (with apologies to Daemond Arrindell): WoWPS Post 4 and Final.

10 May

As an artist, I find it very easy to slip between the extremes of narcissism and self-negation, isolation and codependency. For a moment in that Green Room in Columbus, I felt really alone. A lot of poets had coaches or buddies to hold their hands: Megan brought Ayinde along for comfort, Tristan chose Baz to advise her, Eboni had Falu and Mo, Sierra had Colin,

Sierra & Colin.

and a lot of the women who’d made some kind of Finals in the past (rightfully) seemed to have a kind of preexisting sisterhood. Since I wasn’t repping a venue, and hadn’t for a good couple of years, I didn’t feel like I had folks in my corner rooting for me in the same way.

Of course, I hadn’t been alone at any point, and I wasn’t then.

Celebrating making the list.

Since I started slamming, I’ve had people holding my hand, pushing me to stay in the game and get better. Too many, far too many to name everyone, but going into this particular competition, Tony Brown gave me excellent, thorough critique on the three new poems I brought into prelims, Khary Jackson told me, as early as WoWPS the year previous, that I could definitely do it, and constantly pushed and inspired me to write more, my SF women (Mona Webb, Kim Johnson, and Lucky 7) gave me a quiet room to rest in the night before Finals,

Mona Webb, my first coach.

Copperhead Red and Andi Kauth agreed to be my posse in those restless moments when I was waiting for the final list to go up,

Copperhead Red.

Panama Soweto reminded me throughout the competition to trust my own instincts and told me wonderful jokes when my nerves were getting the best of me, and Sean McGarragle was my on-site hand-holder, meeting me outside between poems to advise me and tell me how things felt from the crowd.

Backstage proper, Megan and I gravitated to each other.

Megan's legs, two of innumerable gorgeous parts of her.

Rickman and I met in Richmond about a year ago, through Survivor, my brother and her coach. We supported each other through prelims, and as two of the dark horses in the race, coming from the same region of the country, the bond felt natural and welcome. Rachel McKibbens, who performed the sacrificial poems for the first two rounds, was a great help to me and everyone else. At one point, she comforted each of us individually, telling us all that no one could do exactly what each of us could do.

Rachel, also being fucking hilarious.

Rachel and Gypsee Yo were also two women who took me aside once I’d qualified for Finals and told me, “It’s about time,” which was totally unexpected, and brought me to tears…

But yes, we did the draw, and lo, I pulled a ten out of twelve. That’s a fantastic draw, for all of you keeping track at home. It was especially good for me given the way the round played out. One poet after another brought the dramatic, the tragic, beautiful but consistently solemn and heavy work. As the first round wore on, I got more and more restless, because I wanted to flip that energy soooo badly, and I began to worry someone else would catch on and beat me to it. Rachel saw the same trend. She kept saying aloud, to the room, “If I were a coach in this bout, I know exactly what I’d do right now. I know exactly who I’d send up,” and I knew we were thinking the same thing, and I hoped she wouldn’t offer that information up to the room. If someone had asked her, I’m sure she would have shared – but no one did. So we had a run of nine serious poems leading into mine.

And oh, it felt so fucking good to bring a funny poem onstage at that point. Stepping out into that spotlight, looking out at the full and eager house, how lovely and buzzing was that moment, especially knowing that the audience and I were on the express train to Joyville. Spot on, y’all. I felt like the Love Doctor. To me, nothing feels better than doing the right poem at the right moment, especially when it’s a funny poem – I can never get enough of that palpable relief and happiness that radiates from the audience. The judges felt me too, and I walked away with the high score of the first round.

Crazy eyes are my specialty.

***

INTERLUDE: How to Be a Funny Poet


WoWPS was one of a long list of competitions I’ve attended that made it apparent that lot of poets are afraid to perform funny work, especially when the stakes are high. This is justified only insofar as we as a culture tend not to give humor the respect it deserves. I talked to Mike McGee about winning his title using two funny poems out of three, and the kind of latent disrespect he felt from some of the community – as though winning with humorous work was somehow less valid. When Sonya Renee won her title, I imagine some of the same judgment was passed on her (although there were quite obviously other elements at play as well).

But laughter is as essential as tears. As a competitor, you really ought to have at least a few funny poems in your repertoire. Take my advice, darlings, and diversify the tone of your offerings. Or else I promise: if I think I can beat you and make the audience laugh in the process, I will do it every chance I get.

I was pleased, however, that a couple of different poets asked me, after competition was over, how to write a satirical poem. That’s a good look! It means I actually did get props for bringing the funny, and more poets are thinking about doing the same. It’s especially exciting, for me, to think of more women bringing funny poems, as we are generally so fucking eager to be taken seriously. These thoughts are especially for those women who want to get laughs.

1. “Funny” comes in many forms. Think about the voice you’re going for. Wry, sarcastic, deadpan, cheesy? Who/what makes you laugh? Study comedians who you like and think about why what they do works for you. If you don’t know many comedians, ask folks for recommendations. Think about your body: can you pull off physical or slapstick humor? Bringing a high-energy funny poem is often the best means of using the entire stage – and if you can do that well, you’ll reap the rewards.

2. Timing is everything. I was just talking to Baz about this. Some people have a natural sense of comedic timing. Others have to work a lot harder to make their jokes carry. Most folks mess up their timing a lot when they first begin to write funny poems, stepping on the audience’s laughter and rushing through jokes. Then there’s also the issue of keeping the momentum up and keeping the poem moving, so letting the laughs go on too long can be a danger too. It takes a fair amount of practice to learn how to play a funny poem to a room (and the laughs often come at different moments in different rooms, so some measure of flexibility is key).

3. Write your poems short. Most of my comedic poems clock in at about 2:30 if I read them straight through. That gives me a full 30+ seconds to allow the crowd to laugh.

4. Seriousness as foundation. Very few poets I know can pull off poems that are just plain silly in real competition (again, Sonya and Mike come to mind). That takes a pretty real mastery of comedy, I think. The audience generally wants to feel like you have something important to say, even if you say it with a wink and a nod. My two most reliable comedic poems (The Body Beautiful and The Miscegenator) both have an element of gravitas: the former poem flips in tone at the end and goes sincere, and the latter stays big and ridiculous but talks about a topic that people take very seriously.

5. Seriousness as spice. Ekabhumi told me that every serious poem should have a funny moment, and every funny poem should have a serious moment. This moment is what he refers to as a “release valve”, a chance for the audience to breathe. Generally I think this is very sage advice: when you give your crowd a little moment off, they tend to come back to you refreshed and ready for more.

***

I had a similarly lucky draw for the second round, and similarly good fortune in having style and content that contrasted strongly with my competitors’. The green room was suddenly almost empty going into the last round. My Rickman was gone, Rachel was gone, I was going first, and I was out of poems I really, really wanted to perform. I did the poem I thought was the cleanest and strongest out of what I had left, but for the first time that night I knew I wasn’t hitting it. It was the wrong poem for that moment, and I felt that the instant I started performing. I talked to Chauncey about this later, and she said that folks don’t really seem to understand just how many poems you need to get up there and stay up there, and I think she’s right. But taking fourth was a great honor for me. I’m proud of myself, and I’m super thankful to everyone who helped me get that far. I proved something to myself that night, and I walked away very happy indeed.

The End.

I Wanna Be Like Mike.

16 Mar

Hey. I just took fourth place in the Women of the World Poetry Slam. Awesome. 🙂

Also awesome? I spent most of my time in Worcester at Mike McGee‘s house. He is one of my favoritest people in the whole wide. I’ll probably make Mike blush a little over the course of this post, but not embarrass him too much, I hope.

Mike McGee & the Tapioca Pearls.

When I was in Worcester, I read a brief article by Seth Godin (whose blog you should check out on the regular, btw), and damn is it good. Assuming you’re too lazy to click over and read those three paragraphs, I’ll paraphrase: Godin’s idea is that genius is actually innovation, “the act of solving a problem in a way no one has solved it before.”

I like this tons, mainly because I endorse the idea that everybody has the capacity for brilliance, that it isn’t the dominion of those born with high IQs or families of scholars and rocket scientists. Godin’s definition suggests that there are infinite manifestations of genius, and that it can and does come from everywhere.

So Mike McGee’s a genius. Not to suggest that Mike McGee does not have a high IQ and is not the offspring of rocket scientist scholars, not at all, my friends. But I’ll tell you some of the OTHER reasons why. Stylistically, he’s become one of the world’s best performance poets – and he’s done so using comedy as his primary vehicle. That was an unusual competitive tactic the first time Mike took a title, and it’s unusual now, seven years later. The truism that, “if it bleeds, it leads,” holds firm in slam, and your comedy has to be pretty fucking sharp to buck that trend.

Poets need tools, fools!

More than that. If, as Andrea Gibson has claimed, poets get paid to “talk for a living,” then let’s say outright that Mike is a genius of talk. He’s good at talking to people in ordinary life, yeah, whether it be by putting on a voice or character, remembering the names and details of any of the thousands of folks he meets in any given year, or by taking the standard slam poem and turning it into fucking impromtu gloriousness. Hit the link and watch. The sound quality ain’t great, but it gives you some sense of how correct I am. 😛 I’ve seen Mike perform this poem ten times, probably, in different venues, and every time it’s totally different, funny in new ways, and it always, always kills. Because Mike talks and poems in a way no one else has thought to do before, and no one could properly imitate, although many try.

One of the reasons I like performance poetry is that so many of us who do “this” well do “this” in very unique ways, drawing from schools as diverse as stand-up, hip hop, page poetry, church, dance, theater, indie rock, performance art, and more. To get really good, you kind of have to be yourself. It’s a funny, bastard art, and it rewards hybridization and innovation – if not always immediately or directly; some of our greatest slam poets have achieved little in the way of national titles, but used what they learned to innovate in other fields that needed fresh perspective.

But one of my favorite things about Mike McGee is that he’s so awfully generous. He gives great hugs. He listens. He answers any and every question, especially about poetry, because he wants to help. Mike got his start in San Jose, got big, and returned to his hometown for some time to help host the local slam and get it moving again. He’s lived in Worcester for the past year, hosting Kitchen Sessions (mentioned in my last post), a happening that showcases high-caliber and developing local and touring talent for free, in Mike’s house, hosted by the man himself.

I watched Mike setting up for the show that night, sorting through Chex Mix with rubber gloves,

Mike & Chex Mix.

meeting and greeting, hosting, talking and talking and talking, cleaning up afterward, and it was then, at the end of the night, that I finally saw it. He was tired. Mighty Mike was really, deeply thoroughly exhausted. That’s when the level of his giving finally struck me, and I felt more honored than ever to be his friend.

Mike's chapbooks. A treasure trove of you and me.

Mike makes the world better. He wants us to laugh, and he wants us to feel important. He wants lots of us to tour, y’all (or travel, at least). Mike’s the one who talked me into touring for real. He gave me my resolve to do this.

See? Iiiii....can go anywhere...!

I probably wouldn’t be writing this now if it weren’t for Mike. He’s one of many amazing people who’ve told me I’m a good poet, and I deserve to be loved. And he makes me feel strong, yeah. To innovate. To see new places. To do the funny. To bring the kindness. I will always endeavor to do so.

Genius may be having the idea to inventing nuclear fission, microeconomics, or artificial hearts, but none of those things suits my skill set at this point in my life. If I can be like Mike – if I can bring brilliance, laughter, love, generosity, and understanding into the world around me, I will have lived, and well.

This is what genius means to me.

At Least I Know I’m Me.

2 Feb

The last night of 2009 I was having a nightmare (being pursued and trapped, that kind of thing) when my conscious mind turned on and I decided to fly. Sunshine, clouds, blue sky, wooded tracts and fields below. Lucid dreaming rocks my world. It’s one of the most empowering feelings. So not only was I in Vancouver, with the Foxies, but I went into the last day of 2009 with huge confidence and joy.

Jess is the head of the Work Less Party, as Nora explained, and they were hosting a New Year’s party at the Lions’ Club that night. Nora and I went looking for something sexy she could wear. We roamed around Commercial Drive a little, and I got a better sense of the neighborhood. It kind of reminded me of Chicago’s Albany Park: very unpretentious and international, lots of little businesses with a friendly air.

Downtown Vancouver reminded me of NYC – only there were significantly fewer people on the streets, and they exuded an entirely different vibe. A vibe like celery. Just being out with Nora for a few hours gave me the most refreshing sense of, “Good goddamn, I am so glad to have a break from the fucken United States.” I’ve been to Hawai’i and Puerto Rico in the last six years (and I don’t count either as part of the U.S., they are colonies, friend), but it has been six years since I had a chance to whip my passport out. Dry spell broken!

***

INTERLUDE: Four Reasons Why Being a Filthy American Is Preferable to Being a Kanook

I generally don’t get the whole idea of “national pride”. Why anyone feels justified in being proud of where he/she happened to be born is beyond me. But there are undeniable reasons why being from the ol’ U.S. of A. is way sexier than being from that spot up north. Here are a few.

1. The Element of Surprise. Let’s face it: across the world, the bar is set really, really low for U.S. citizens. Because of this, it is very easy for us to deeply impress people simply by knowing more than one language, reading blurbs summarizing the international news, or not wearing sneakers.

2. Cheap Drugs. Booze and cigarettes are really expensive in Canada. It’s taxed to the dickens ’cause of that fucken universal health care bullshit they have going on. They should really consider getting rid of that.

3. Bootstraps. Canadians are spoiled. See the above note on health care. Also, it seems that the government showers its artists with money. How will they ever learn if people are always coddling them?

4. A Pleasant Puritanism. Canadians have more sex than we do. Who has time for more sex? Who would WANT time for more sex? That’s a filthy business.

***

Back at the house, Chris (who is apparently some kind of genius apothecary) fed us a hangover prevention tonic. Once we’d prettied up, we all headed over to the Work Less Party. Ironically, given the party name, Jess had Nora and Chris and I all working. 😉 We handled the bar. I had a really good time. New Year’s is generally my least favorite holiday. It generally feels empty and lonely and drunk for no good reason, so it was good to have a job to do.

Jess Pre-Party

The party itself was very cool, a nice mix of artists and Normals. There were burlesque acts, stunning, stunning lights, music all night, body paint… It was definitely a party in the Burning Man school. Someone offered me MDMA and I was flattered and baffled. Sven, one of Jessica’s many friends who I was to meet later, was by far the most fabulous motherfucker there.

YES, the mohawk lights up, bitches!

We counted down and no one sang “Auld Lang Syne” and I thought about the time zone spread of people I love, and I decided against kissing the very, very pretty blonde boy with the open face. I went home feeling sticky, beautiful, a little lonely and very glad.