Archive | Individualism RSS feed for this section

Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.

24 Nov

I’ve been struggling with a bit of writers’ block on this blog. As a poet, one who takes and gives a lot of criticism and lives very publicly, you’d think I’d be able to shrug off the very abstract idea of People’s disapproval.

You’d think.

Well, after the National Poetry Slam I wrote a quick post on FB rebutting what I read as resentment or disapproval of St. Paul’s victory this summer. There was an incendiary sentence in there, I’m afraid; I was feeling pretty defensive for my friends from Minnesota, who are stellar poets, and work very hard to be the best they can. A couple of my friends from an opposing team got pretty upset. Shocked and apologetic, I pulled the post immediately and called the people who’d let me know I’d hurt them. These folks chastised me, but accepted my very, very humble apology.

About a month ago, I met with another poet whose opinion I’ve come to trust deeply, although we don’t always agree. He warned me against being seen as a blogger/commentator who’s nasty and starts shit for fun. Hearing this saddened me so much. I can be highly judgmental, yes, but throughout the history of this blog in particular, and the notes I’ve posted on FB as well, I’ve tried extremely hard to stay positive, to talk about what’s brilliant and exceptional in our community. I champion it every chance I get, and I try hard to be fair.

So I was thinking about stopping all this. Is it worth it? If I might lose friends or gain any kind of infamy? If the very family I want to support and love misreads my intentions?

I remember once reading about Robert Hayden, a man who wrote some of my favorite poems. At a certain point in his career, some of Hayden’s peers in the Black Arts Movement berated him for considering himself an artist first, and black second. The criticism didn’t change Hayden’s stance, although it probably reinforced his lifelong outsider status in his own mind.

I think it’s time for me to stop thinking of myself as a slammer or slam poet (which I’ve stubbornly, loyally called myself for the last five years), and start just thinking of myself as a writer. I can’t be so worried about belonging that I don’t write what feels true. And my primary loyalty is to the writing.

I’m not going to stop. I’m returning to this with a heavy heart, but with new focus. From this point on, this is officially a blog about poetry as a whole, and also a blog about whatever the fuck is on my mind, no longer a blog specifically on performance poetry. Back to the wilderness, y’all. Let’s see what happens.

Individuality vs. Versatility: WoWPS Post 3 (roll the dice to check your stamina)

8 May

Recently, on Rik’s recommendation, I started watching Bleach, an anime series I’d seen around but hadn’t tried out. I’m about halfway through the series now, and y’know, it’s good. The episodes are a little more formulaic than I typically enjoy, but the devotion to long-term character development, satisfying plot twists, and overall badassery makes this a series worth watching, IMHO (if you want to watch, it’s on Hulu, and broken up into parts on YouTube. Just remember to skip the shitty theme songs at the beginning and end).

I tend to prefer anime that involves some kind of regular dueling action (swordplay, gunplay, supernatural powers, &c.). It’s fun and exciting, even when you know who’s going to win. I love the insane creativity that goes into the making of these alternate universes. Along with compelling RTV shows like Top Chef, Project Runway or The Biggest Loser, I find the anime I watch to be a great motivating tool for competition. Characters are constantly saying things like, “I’ll do my best!” or “I won’t lose!”, whether they be doe-eyed neophytes or virtual demigods.

Gonna spoil here, just a little. Bleach features a class of warriors known as Soul Reapers. Each Soul Reaper who attains a certain mastery of his/her (usually his, though there is one truly admirable woman thus far) technique has markedly different powers; these powers are halfway drawn from the spirit-inhabited swords they carry. Sort of like the patroni drawn from wands a la Harry Potter, only MUCH more dope. Kind of like each Dog of the State drawing on a different element a la Fullmetal Alchemist. Or just the old school notion of different martial artists practicing different fighting styles.

For me, maybe the coolest thing about making it to Finals was feeling I was meeting eleven other incredible warriors in battle. And dude, I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s pretty fucken extra awesome to me being in a room full of warriors with vaginas. I’d seen or sparred with all these women before, so I knew each had something really special going on, her own power, her own fighting style. And Finals was a different kind of arena than I’d ever battled in before. The previous night’s prelims at the tight, packed Writing Wrongs venue felt, before it even began, like a street fight waiting to happen, where the women who won would have to grapple, get bloody-knuckled and sweat; WoWPS Finals felt as close to the Coliseum as I’ve ever come. Neat-o!

Yeah, I respected and continue to respect all of my competitors in the context of the game. Fond as we are of saying slam is random, the random draw, ranking system, and double preliminaries make it kind of hard to ascend to finals on an absolute fluke. And okay, say Ms. Wise, Tristan, Hannah, Megan or I, or any Finals first-timer, makes it on a fluke. That doesn’t explain why most of the pack stays veteran: Sierra, Dee, Chauncey, Eboni, Nicole, Nitche, and Gypsee Yo have all done it before. On the adverse tip, I remember someone bemoaning the lack of new blood to challenge the seemingly eternal champions of slam, but I don’t see it that way at all. I think a lot of folks, once they “get” their own styles and “get” the way the game is played, are more likely to reach that level again and again, if they stay wanting it (few stay wanting it). But every Finals I see new warriors in the arena, and often enough it’s those new warriors who win the day. Amy winning iWPS last year is a great example of that, and so are three of the four top teams at last year’s Nationals (because no one thought ABQ would come back, right? or that SF and St. Paul could bring some serious shit? but Nuyo does make it pretty much every year).

I would not filthy my presently veryshiny brain with trying to imply who the Best Slam Poets are; I’m not suggesting any given Finals necessarily showcases the best motherfuckin artists in the known universe, just a sliver of the slam poets who have enough mastery of their own personal styles and mastery of the nature of the competition to score the best, given the proper circumstances. I killed in prelims at WoW using a poem that totally bombed in prelims at iWPS only a few months before (Did I get five 10s? Yeeaahhh. That has never ever happened to me before, or since, with any poem, in the four years I’ve been slamming. Still think it’s a dream).

Which brings us back to Bleach. When characters are confronted with a really dope hero or villain, Bleach uses a phrase I’ve seen in other anime series: “He’s so strong!”, but even more fun, sometimes characters say, “Thatโ€ฆthat spiritual pressure!”, which is Bleach‘s way of implying someone’s really powerful, in the zone, or on fire. What reliably puts someone in her spiritual firepower zone? Desperately wanting to win, needing to share the poems she’s brought, reading the venue and the crowd and the night well, and having practiced to the point where the odds that she’ll drop a line or fuck up her delivery are slim.

Different venues and different nights matter enormously, in the same sense that battling on one kind of terrain plays to some fighters’ advantage. If, say, Jeanann Verlee were battling Tony Jackson, on most nights I’d be inclined to give Jeanann the advantage in NYC, and Tony the advantage in Austin, because they’re both incredibly savvy writers and performers, but familiar turf matters very much.

When you’re on the road, you have to learn to adapt very quickly to different crowds and venues. Sometimes you’re more successful, sometimes you disappoint yourself, but you do better the more you get out there. Touring can definitely be an advantage in competition. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at least eight of the twelve of us up there had done some touring previous to that night – and the high representation of women who have 2+ venues to work with on a regular basis, from NYC to ATL to DEN, speaks even more to that point.

So I’d definitely say versatility is one of the lotus/cherry blossom petals (I’ve been watching anime for days) of slam winningness. This is the idea (that I heard from The Fugees first, righteous) that one should “practice many styles” or, as we say in slam, “have deep pockets” – think of Sonya Renee going from a fist-pumping anthem on a woman’s right to choose to an insanely funny adventure with a manmade cheese product. Being able to speak to different crowds – the difference between the set I choose to perform at Van Slam or Java Monkey. Knowing how best to utilize a space – Jared Paul standing on a chair at a strong focal point in the venue to command the crowd’s attention. Adaptability is key.

But even more important, I think, is having a keen sense of oneself. I’ve seen a lot of poets who have one really developed style do very well in slam – folks who just do that one thing really fucking well, and no one else does it quite like they do. If you can’t beat someone who only does one thing, maybe you need to do your thing better. Or just not slam: that’s cool too.

As far as strategy goes, I’d definitely rather try to flip or transform the trends the poets before me have set than try to beat them by following in their footsteps. They’re likely doing what they do best, which probably isn’t the same thing you do best – and even if it’s something you do better, as long as the poet who precedes you reps okay, you need to smash that representation to smithereens to make that moment really worthwhile for you and for the audience.

If you think about it, slam is just like Bleach: having a strong sense of self and a strong understanding of the weapons one carries (even given mastery of only one technique) affords a person a definite edge in battle. I felt like bowing to my eleven opponents before we’d even begun, because I knew they’d all mastered styles that I hadn’t.

So for a minute, at the beginning, it felt pretty great to have the hodgepodge of us tradeswomen or masters crowded into that little Green Room backstage, waiting for the show to begin. Then we did the draw for the first round order, and that was the moment my chest suddenly felt three sizes too small for all the suddenly rowdy fucken organs within.

I Wanna Be Like Mike.

16 Mar

Hey. I just took fourth place in the Women of the World Poetry Slam. Awesome. ๐Ÿ™‚

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. ๐Ÿ˜› 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.

I Might Not Be the Sharpest Tool, But I’m the Brightest Bulb.

10 Feb

Given the succession of blizzards currently savaging DC, I’m stranded in Minnesota for the next couple of days. It’s a good chance to catch up on these entries, yes?

I’ve been thinking a lot about light as a metaphor. Enlightenment, the light of religion, the light at the end of the tunnel, light as the opposite of heavy. Light as a synonym for grace, for what humans emit when we do good. I talk to my friends these days and I hear the burden of winter on their voices. It’s an especially stark contrast when I’m calling the East Coast from, say, sunny California. Plus I’m on the road, traveling as lightly as possible, living without the same burdens of ownership and responsibility (that, for many, have only gained weight with the current recession). But we on the road are vulnerable to every shift in the wind. That’s why it matters so much to find real havens along the way.

Two descriptions of the Foxy House, from those who’ve been:

1. A sort of psychic rehab where people wander when they need their hearts sewn back together. A spiritual halfway house, if you like.

2. “Anything you want it to be, anything you need it to be.”

These are, essentially, the same answer. Over the course of my Foxy week, I saw Jess and the others play therapist, nutritionist, stylist, and clown for the most random array of humankind. What I wanted and needed while I was there was a slightly insane but genuinely loving surrogate family that relished art and laughter as much as I did, a home with doors always open, where folks wouldn’t try to control or judge me, but who would allow my light to breathe. That’s exactly what I got. I didn’t mention some of the best moments – talking about being bicultural with Nora, talking anime with Keith, and more, because they’re too many to count, and I’ve gushed a lot as it is. Just go to Vancouver, go see for yourself.

***

INTERLUDE: My Favorite Animated Series

Everybody needs downtime. We creative types love self-flagellation (because it’s just another excuse to touch ourselves), and not working hard or often enough is our favorite reason for it. Yes, it’s important to be committed and as disciplined as possible, but part of the creative process is passive. So don’t forget to take time off to let your brain work properly. Go for a walk or a swim or a drive, sew something, volunteer somewhere, go out to trivia night, read, look at art books. It’s okay. Really.

My favorite new downtime activity is watching anime, and I do it whenever I get a chance. I like space cowboys, samurai, and ninja mostly, but I’m open to strong adult series of any caliber. If you’re interested, you can find a lot of them online for free, or check out a good video store. Netflix has some as well. Here are my favorite series to date, in no particular order. Pay attention, Keith!

* Cowboy Bebop: The penultimate space cowboy experience. Christian and I tore through these DVDs back when we were still in college. I’d count this as the first real seed of my love for anime (yeah I was late, you wanna fight about it?), and it remains one of the most elegant series I’ve seen in the years since.

* Samurai Champloo: Panama Soweto recommended this series, and I can never thank him enough for putting me onto it. It’s a super smart, sexy story set in feudal Japan with classic characters, compelling plot, a solid hip hop aesthetic, an abiding respect for Japanese history and traditions, and incredible fight scenes.

* Full Metal Alchemist: I watch the Japanese-language version. Jack Thompson’s obsessed with the English sub. Tomato, tomato. Incredible stuff. Intricate, compelling storyline and characters, good veins of the lighthearted and sinister running concurrently. I can’t recommend this too highly. Ask Jack.

* Black Lagoon: This was Krystal Asche’s suggestion (she has a lot of good ones in the “Boxes” section on her FB page). I simply love it. It breaks away from most conventions of anime, but it’s totally badass and really ballsy outlaw-tastic – and as Krystal herself points out, it features one of the most fearsome, awesome, compelling female leads you’ll find in any series. Yum.

* FLCL: I might lose you here. FLCL gets seriously kooky at points, and there’s a pretty strong sexual undercurrent that might make some folks uncomfortable. The story is short but well-crafted, full of hidden rooms and sudden sunlight. Love it.

* Paranoia Agent: Just finished watching this one, so I might be jumping the gun a little. Since I’m familiar with the mind behind it, though (I watched the feature Perfect Blue at Cooter’s house maybe a year ago), I feel confident recommending this. Hir-รถ Hall suggested I try this one on, and it fits, for sure. This is a series done mostly in a realistic style, with brilliant little fissures in the norm as the episodes carry on. I described the PA world as a “subtle dystopia” to a friend a few minutes ago, so that’s what that is.

* Aeon Flux: Broadcast on MTV back before The Real World ruined everything. Terribly sexy, metaphysical, philosophical, creepy, in its short run, Aeon Flux hit just about every psychological pitch possible. Damn, I still miss that show.

* The Maxx: See above, word for word.

***

I took the bus from Vancouver to Seattle where I met up with one of my favorite light knights (as opposed to night lights), Daemond Arrindell.

Daemond.

Daemond would be quick to point out that the legendary Seattle scene doesn’t have a leader. As he told me, it’s a conglomeration of dynamic and creative adults who cooperate to make things happen. He thinks of himself pretty much as a facilitator, I believe. But I think it’s fair to call Daemond the keystone of the Seattle scene. He’s the rock, and he gives love and care to anyone who needs it.

Daemond drove me to his old neighborhood and showed me the Bohemian Gypsy Sky Palace, where he and Gabrielle used to live.

Bohemian Gypsy Sky Palace.

Artists’ houses are sacred places to me, no matter their character, and hearing Daemond reminisce about that place made me smile. I wish I could have seen it. But I know that yesterday’s Bohemian Gypsy Sky Palace is today’s Foxy House, Vox Ferus, or Worcester House. We’re still doing it, people.

We went out for pho, which I hadn’t eaten in years. As usual, I heaped way too much of that luscious chili paste into my bowl, and watched little beads of hot oil slither all over the surface of the soup. I also ordered a Vietnamese coffee, which I promptly overturned on the paper tablecloth (to Daemond’s delight). Our food came with cream puffs! I find it neat that Vietnamese cuisine has elements of both East Asian and Western European culture, epitomized in the popular Vietnamese sandwiches served on baguettes. Sure, we’ve got slavery, genocide, rape, destruction of families and tradition – but who doesn’t love the blues? ๐Ÿ˜›

WWBD?

Back at Daemond and Inti’s, Karen Finneyfrock joined us for drink and conversation. Karen talked a bit about the strain of putting her manuscript together for Write Bloody. Her pet peeve at that moment was seeing the same metaphor reappear like a poltergeist in poem after poem. That’s certainly another level of professionalism. Meticulous scrutiny of a poem is one thing, but taking stock of one’s body of work in full? *shakes head* You’ve got to be steadfast as Atreyu passing the gates to reach the Southern Oracle. Props to all my peers who’ve put themselves through that process.

Great sleep that night, at home in a Washington far away from the Washington I call home. Damn, it’s too late for a BC/DC joke, innit? hmph.

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. ๐Ÿ˜‰ 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.

You Know You’re a Sweet Little Lovemaker.

31 Jan

I was raised in a house dominated by fucken strong, sexy women-of-will. My years in slam have blessed me with the friendship and example of unabashed divas like Sonya Renee Taylor, Gabrielle Bouliane, and Mona Webb, women who can outsmart you, outclass you, outsexy you, and have you walking away feeling lucky you got three minutes in the ring.

Yep. I am no stranger to Foxy Ladies.

So I took the (very nice!) train from Bellingham to Vancouver.

See? Very nice automatic glass door.

Upon arrival, I suffered the unpleasant realization that, yeah, that one time I got arrested? And spent the night in a holding cell? And my parents never found out because I was out of town (hi Mom and Dad) and the charges were dismissed because several foreign princes were involved (long story, not as porny as it sounds, sadly)? Yeah. Coulda been turned away at the border.

Luckily, the border patrol seemed to feel sorry for me, with my meager briefcase of homemade chapbooks that I easily convinced them weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.

(I am a threat to no one.)

Anyway, the gentle yet fiercely protective Angus Adair was waiting across the border to shepherd me through.

People.

When you get in the habit of regularly haunting terminals throughout the world, the tiny gesture of someone meeting you on arrival or driving you to the airport can bring you to tears (hi again, Mom and Dad). But Angus actually came to me, sans car, ready to battle the border patrol to the death. He gave me a monster hug and taxied me over to where I was staying, making sure I was settled in before heading home.

Please hug Angus for me.

Right now.

I’ll wait.

In this wildebeest existence of few and far between sweet spots and havens barely big enough to cradle one ovary with care, there exists, tucked inside a wall of pines, just off the wonderland of Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, the Foxy House. I was tired, grimy, near defeated – but setting foot inside this place after my border battle was not unlike battling half a mile through a sandstorm only to step into a puddle that turned out to be a sea of milk that had been sweetened, previously, by cereal with colorful marshmallow bits.

Jess, Nora, Chris and Keith were talking story in the dark golden light of the living room. Jess was smoking by the window, cackling and playing her wit like a slap bass. Nora was deadpan humor in a robot-printed onesie, swilling spiked eggnog from a teacup. Chris wore a riding helmet and sipped nog from his own teacup, romping with Nora as the mood suited them. Keith was laughing at it all, stroking the puppy in his lap (Margaret Thatcher), watching people go off like firecrackers around him.

I wasn't joking about the helmet.

This was my first impression of this mostly Canadian stumblefuck of hooraydom. My first impression?

Everyone here is weird. Praise motherfuckin be.


***

INTERLUDE: How to Have Loud Sex.

Naturally vocal in the bedroom (and dining room), I have generally attempted to downplay the decibel level of my love cries. You know, so other people can sleep and stuff. I did not participate in any sexing while in the confines of the Foxy House, but, ha, the going standard while I was there seemed to be: do it as loud and as often as possible. In honor of the Foxies, then.

* Do Not Give a Fuck Whilst Fucking. In order to have loud sex successfully, it’s important that you not care who might be listening in on you. That means embracing the fact that you’re taking carnal pleasure by the throat (probably out of wedlock) and enjoying it. If you’re embarrassed by this being public knowledge, loud sex is not for you. The only exception to the “Do Not Give a Fuck” rule? If the thought of someone listening in makes you hot.

* Exercise Your Range. If you’re a lady, don’t be afraid to grunt. If you’re a man, a high-pitched moan can be really eerie and lovely. Don’t just make the sounds you think you’re supposed to make just because that’s what actors in southern California do. If you feel like singing or making small talk, try it out. You might like it. A lot.

* Words, Words, Words. Make sure you and your partner have a general understanding of what kind of language you like: naughty/nice, for one. This is especially important if you’re going to be screaming something that everyone in the neighborhood can hear.

* Say My Name. It never gets old.

***

Of course, before the Foxies could accept me, I had to pass a Filthy American test. After Chris brought me an apricot beer and I’d had a chance to smoke a cigarette and relax, Jess called me out: what did I think of Obama’s presidency to date?

(Everyone was suddenly very silent and attentive.)

I don’t have the best grasp of politics. I just know what little I’ve read and seen and how I feel about it. So I said, plainly, that we’re all a little disappointed right now. Obama’s commitment to continuing the wars his predecessors began is surprising and upsetting. His handling of the early stages of the economic crisis showed him to be naive at best. But it’s unreasonable to blame one man for problems that are obviously systemic, that existed long before he was even born.

The Canadians seemed pleased with my little answer. Jess smiled and offered to get me another apricot beer. And suddenly I was a part of the love and the conversation, all of it, Foxy Foxy 1-2-3.

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.