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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.

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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, “That…that 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.

The Holy Host.

3 Mar

The Nuyo.

If we continue with our supposition that slam is like church, then the host of a show is the chief medium through which the holiness of poetry and performance is (potentially) transmitted. The host absolutely sets the tone for the night. I’ve seen hosts stack the outcome of competitions by messing with the order of lists, introducing or commenting on poets’ work with bias, or even actively leading the audience in cheers for their preferred poets.

I don’t want to dwell on that, though. More elementally, the host is the conduit through which the show most clearly expresses its style, preferences, and openness. According to Ekabhumi’s experiments in Berkeley (and I think this usually bears out), a female host, by her very presence, encourages more women to grace the stage. A black host makes poets of color feel more welcome. The host can also guide the mood of a show by opening/closing with particular songs or poems, and choosing particular poets to sacrifice or perform in the open mic. Even if the host makes no conscious effort, her personality and attitude affect the audience by her interactions with them. What she does deeply affects the mood of the room and the feel of the show.

I visited the Nuyo briefly about a year ago, so I’d seen Mo Browne open, as she usually does, but the night Khary and I cofeatured, Mo was on tour in Cali.

The beautiful Mo Browne, very much missed.

Luckily, Jive Poetic was around to host in her stead. He got the night going the same way I’d seen Mo do, in what must be a Nuyo standard, bumping BBD’s “Poison”, getting the audience singing, dancing, and energized before the poetry even started. Throughout the night, Jive was generally just really fucking fun and sweet. He made all the poets feel noticed and special, even as he teased them, and himself. I definitely want to go back and see Mo host a full night, but I’ve seen enough of both of them to confidently say the Nuyo features two of the funniest, most dynamic, and loving hosts in the country. I’d put both Jive and Mo in my top five.

Jive hosting. Note the Carleton sweater.

***

INTERLUDE: Staying Healthy On the Road

I know I’ve posted this before, but it’s worth posting again and again. Most poets I know, even those who don’t tour, are terribly unhealthy: we eat badly, tend not to exercise, take substances that fuck us up and generally wreak havoc on our bodies. I’ve suffered from all kinds of awful ailments while on tour. My back has gone out (Boise), bedbugs have gnawed on me (Esalen), I’ve suffered from TMJ Disorder (Austin), and I’ve gotten debilitating colds (St. Paul, notably). I’m pretty hardy, all told, so I pity the fool with a weak immune system. Being on the road is stressful as is, then poets come into contact with a lot of people, a lot of germs, and switch climates and environments all the time.

At the risk of being obnoxiously punny, let’s consider another spin on the word “host”. A host, in the biological sense, is a carrier for a parasite. Keeping that in mind, think of your body-soul, what have you, as being in steady contact with all kinds of stuff that’d be happy to jump in your body and ride around for a while, maybe devour you a little, with no regard for whether it hurts you or slows you down. I’m not trying to exacerbate anyone’s OCD here, but the reality of being on tour is that this stuff is going to try to get at you.

Here’s a list, then, of commonsense but crucial tips to stay at your best and brightest while you’re out and about.

Sleep. Get as much of it when you can. It won’t always be possible to get a ton of deep sleep, but it’s recently been proved that REM sleep actually is cumulative, so you can actually make up hours that you miss.

Keep It Fresh. Whenever you get a chance to eat fresh fruits and veggies, do so. Again, you won’t always have the chance to eat anything healthier than a wedge of iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing. Consider fruit and vegetable juices, or using frozen fruits (same nutritional value as fresh fruit) to make smoothies when you’re staying at someone’s house.

Supplements. Emergen-C does excellent things to the body. Taking a packet when you begin to feel sick or before a night of heavy drinking can ward off disaster. The packets are also super small and lightweight, so they won’t mess with the weight of your bags. Also, as per Paulie Lipman, carry a packet of slippery elm lozenges, found at most health food stores. If you find your throat or voice is beginning to wear out, one of these tablets should fix you up, at least long enough to get you through your feature.

Simple Exercise. Setting up a simple routine for yourself is a great idea. Even if it’s just a series of stretches, Sun Salutations, for example, this is a great way to get the kinks out of your body and stay limber for your time onstage. Even something as small as going for short walks around the venue or the neighborhood where you’re staying can really get the Jet Blue/Greyhound/Amtrack/driving knots out of your body. Also…

Unsketchy Massages. People like touching poets, I guess, and there are a lot of givers on our community, so this shouldn’t be too difficult to find.

Use Condoms. Assuming you’ve ignored the “unsketchy” caveat above, and assuming you’re sexually active, rubber up. If you don’t have any sex on the road, you can still use condoms, to make indestructible water balloons, for example.

Smoking. Don’t start.

Drinking & Other Drugs. Moderate.

***

The Nuyo was excellent. Even given the nasty snow coming down, we had a full, attentive house. Logan Phillips, whose work I hadn’t seen in years, ripped a couple of poems that made me really wish I were staying in New York to see one of his full feature sets with Verbobala, his cross-border poetry troupe.

Logan.

The slam itself showcased a range of solid work, from my Canadian geek crush Duncan Shields,

Duncan.

to the tender, fervent Rock Wilk, to several poets I’d never heard before, including Savant, who won the night.

Rock and Savant.

I was a little nervous about sharing a feature with Khary. His poems were rockstar, as expected, especially his excellent strange hip hop ode.

Khary Jackson.

But I was pleasantly surprised to find I held my own, even with a good dose of new work in the mix. Opening with “Rut” was really fun, and reading “Chamber Music” for the first time satisfied me immeasurably.

After the show, a lot of women came up to me and thanked me, especially for performing “Maneater”. These glowing lady fans are becoming more and more a mainstay as I grow on tour, and it’s exactly what I want. I want women to see me onstage and realize they can be funny and sexy and bold too, if they like. Being a conduit or a carrier for this message gives me strength to keep doing what I do. Hallelujah. Amen.

Phantasmagoria.

17 Feb

I just might have the laziest brain. It isn’t a stupid brain, just lazy. See, I didn’t want to bother coming up with a synonym for “lazy”. That’s what just happened.

The plan was to say something about “my itinerant heart”, but that felt fucken clichéd, and I do recall a conversation with J.W. while I was in Chicago, wherein he recommended using any word but heart, any fucken word but heart. Here’s what my brain just made:

* the fusebox beneath my tits
* my punching-bag chest (Roadhouse)

I enjoy that my lazy fucken metaphors effervesce hilarity and flesh.

The itinerant heart was supposed to make its appearance here because constant travel has acclimated me to absence. Love that wanders from job to job. Something is always going to be missing. Someone is always gone. And I am groping for the ghosts.

Many hours in Inti and Daemond’s home by myself. Inti’s an incredible photographer (check out her site, please!) and most of my visit she was on the job in Vegas. Inti was a legend in my lazy brain, thanks to all the glowing compliments other poets had poured in there, but we’d never met.

So my days unwound in perfect peace, padding around the house that Inti and Daemond built, and I could see what people had told me was true. So much natural light, such quiet. Interesting and tasteful decor.

Love those colors.

The kitchen was very well-stocked, but no processed foods were to be found. No microwave, either.

Where the magic happens.

Hmm. It just feels so good in that place! Consideration and beauty shine in all the smallest touches.

Arty thing on the wall.

This was how Inti’s ghost and I came to get along.

***

INTERLUDE: Performance Anxiety.

I talk to people everywhere, especially women, who tell me they admire what I do, and say they “could never do that.” By that they usually mean performing onstage. Well, for almost all performers, stage fright never goes away. We numb ourselves to it through drink or drugs or simply force ourselves up there again and again. It’s a lot like going into battle. Especially in competition, but even an open mic can be harrowing. It’s true, it’s true. You have to care enough about your purpose, your art, the rush of it, or your ego – enough to beat the fear, the ghosts of what may never be.

Worst, your body itself may try to betray you. Here are a few of the physiological changes I may go through before any given performance.

* Bitterly cold hands.
* Shaking knees and legs (makes it difficult to stand properly)
* Shaking voice (an obvious problem)
* Nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness
* Upset stomach
* Difficulty breathing
* Frequent urges to pee
* Extreme sensitivity to touch (in a bad way)

So stop feeling sorry for yourselves. Being scared doesn’t make you special, it makes you just like everyone else. 😉

***

Daemond drove me to the Everett open mic that night. Garrett was lovely. His gentleness was evident throughout the night.

Garrett setting up.

Hm, not so Daemond’s and mine. We were the boisterous folk in the audience, why?

Doesn't he look like a troublemaker to you?

Because we know slam? Because we’re city folk? Because most of the crowd was white? *shrugs* Don’t matter, don’t matter. I had fun. Heard some good poems. A man talked story and played two Lakota flutes, one which was crafted to look like a loon. My, that was moving.

Loon spirit.

At the end of the night, a man in a purple velour jacket (upon which his stage name was embroidered) read some very clever, humorous verse from a big tome of his own poems. He reminded me very much of Ogden Nash at his best.

um, awesome.

My set was solid, although I surprised myself by dropping a poem (“Animal Alarm Clock”, for those of you keeping track at home). The small-town swell was in full effect: I sold a number of books. Best of all, lots of women came up to me afterward and told me how much they’d enjoyed my set. That’s my favorite. A young woman with purple hair asked her mother to buy my book for her, as she was too shy to approach me herself. She smiled and flickered in my peripheral vision, then vanished into the evening, like a ghost.

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.

Play Through the Pain.

18 Jan

I was seventeen the first time I lost a close friend. Lucky it took the world so long to hit me – but we were both still young enough for it to come as a complete shock. He used heroin, but never seemed to be on the edge in the way others I knew were.

The grief was debilitating. I spent the days after the funeral unable to move much, without appetite, unable to smile. Since I was at boarding school at the time, none of the people around me knew my friend, so that exacerbated my loneliness.

I was one of the leads in our all-school play at the time, and about a week after Justin’s death I had to go back onstage for the dress rehearsal. I remember waiting for my cue backstage, stone-faced, someone asking me if I was alright, and only being able to nod.

And the magic happened the second I walked out there and put on that outlandish personality: the spell broke. After that first moment, I could smile and engage and eat again. It didn’t take the sadness away; the sadness will never entirely leave. But performing brought me back into the world.

One of my dear friends is suffering from terminal cancer, and she’s recently taken a turn for the worse. Here she is, doing a poem at the Austin Slam:

Beautiful woman. I have nothing bad to say about her, nothing whatsoever, and that’s not a phrase I could use for many people.

I’m just really, really looking forward to tomorrow night, when I get to perform at the Boise Slam. At its best, performance is cathartic and redemptive – and although not everyone would understand or agree, it feels like doing something. I need to do that, to move forward, as Gabi wants all of us to do.

Linear posting to resume soon. Thank you for your love.

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.