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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.


Agent of Chaos.

25 Feb

some Boise robots.

I’m beginning to think about getting settled again, much more so, yeah. Trolling cragslist tonight. Never ever my favorite thing, even less so when I’m not sure how my existence will look in the upcoming months. But for now I’m putting out feelers. I love this transient existence, but, paradoxically, the better I get at it, the more I fantasize about having a gym or a dojo where I regularly spar, my own kitchen, my own key, and a shelf where books and anime live.

There are times when my lifestyle contrasts starkly with those of the people I visit. Visiting Boise afforded me a great example of what can happen when worlds collide. I was staying with the incomparable Cheryl Maddalena, a fierce, honest poet and organizer.


Cheryl and I have much in common: we have similar worldviews, we often use the same content and techniques in our poetry, we both rock quirky femmey feminism on the regular, and we both developed our performance styles in the Bay. The trappings of our lives are very different, though. Cheryl has several degrees, a slam scene she founded and for which she’s responsible, a husband with a Real Job, two gorgeous little boys, two cats, and a big house in Boise to encompass them all.

Cheryl & sons.

Nice quiet neighborhood.

What would I do if I had people to take care of and big pretty things? I’m not even great at taking care of the assorted people and things already connected to me. All trappings have to be super streamlined. Anything high maintenance either gets left at home, or has to make do with getting ironed once a month/a whole bunch of text messages.

So what happens when these two worlds collide? Let’s draw a Venn diagram:

Small, cacophonous boys shock the weary traveler awake. The debaucherous visitor coerces the mild-mannered housewife into staying up til 4 AM writing and drinking beer. Cheryl makes Laura a grilled cheese sandwich with pickles and a glass of milk,

It was so delicious.

Laura stubs her cigarette butts out in Cheryl’s pretty porcelain bowl. /diagram

The other creature I spent lots of time with was Janelle.


Janelle swims around in the center of our diagram. Sometimes she’s the lightning rod of raucous, sometimes she waves in the current like algal bloom. Janelle and I ate delicious gourmet pizza, played trivia, frequented bars, beguiled strange men, watched a row of drunken patrons stand on a bar, pull their pants down, and let the bartender stick snifters to their ass cheeks…

If only I’d had a camera with a flash, I would show you proof.

When Cheryl and Janelle and I hung out together, we did things that were both enriching and frivolous, but mostly harmless, such as making earrings, or watching The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

My earrings.

When Janelle and Tara and I hung out together, we drank a lot.

Told you.

*shrugs* That’s why Janelle’s in the middle of the diagram.

Anyway, I felt like the loudest creature in Idaho. My time in Boise inspired me to coin the term, “Agent of Chaos” to describe this manifestation of myself, a blaze of honor – but also a warning, I guess. My bouts of wildness suit me because I don’t have to worry about feeding other people or making it to class on time, and because my shadow and I are in constant rapport. I have more to say about chaos, and I will tell you later, I promise.


INTERLUDE: Sonnets, Son.

Boris Pasternak once wrote, “form is the key,” actually as part of a longer quotation, but it’s a thought I return to from time to time, especially when I consider poetic structure. A teacher of mine once taught me this, explaining that learning to write poems in form can be incredibly liberating. I like the seeming paradox of that, like walking towards the wall in the labyrinth and finding a passageway.

I’ve been reading a series of new poems by this Chris Gilpin fellow, and it’s got me excited about sonnets again. Long before I’d ever heard of this wonderful monster called slam poetry, I wrote and studied the “all balls, no cock” variety (of Q-Tip fame). Suffice it to say, I read a fair amount of sonnets over the years, and the form itself does get boring unless folks sometimes break convention in one way or another.

Sonnets are especially frustrating for me, for some reason, but Chris has got me wanting to try the form out again. Who’s with me? I’ll attempt to match anyone who wants to throw down. Classic formula here, stick to the rules or break ’em as you like. Below you’ll find the first of Chris’ series (x-posted with his permission), which got me thinking these crazy thoughts in the first place. If you like this one, ask to see his others. They’re awesome, too.


The rain beats down against my roof tonight,
a-rat-a-tat-tattering finger tapping,
insistent like a salesman’s trap-flapping
“Hey-hey, buddy, you want this one, right?”
I twist the foam earplugs into my skull.
What I want is a serious sleeping pill,
but all I’ve got is this weak-ass NyQuil
which does little to beat life’s edges dull.
I’m fucked. I’ll never get a wink of sleep.
I lay entombed in sounds of wind and rain,
while ex-girlfriends dance through my tired mind.
I count them (which is more fun than counting sheep)
and smile: if I could do it all again,
I’d choose the same ones, or at least, the same kind.

Note: the Blonde Sonnets are my experiments with the sonnet form. The rhyme schemes do not necessarily conform to the standard Shakespearean or Spenserian blueprints. But they are all 14 lines long, play with iambic pentameter and attempt a volta – a shift of perspective, or tone – after the eighth line. My goal is to write them in the plainest language, with lightness and naivety, the passing thoughts of a blonde, like me. –Chris Gilpin


The work element of Boise was fantastic. The workshop I ran was small, but I loved the challenge I set for myself and those in attendance: I brought in Rob Sturma’s “For Black Girls…” from his new book, and asked everyone to try to write a poem about blackness. Yes, in the middle of fucken Idaho. My stipulations were to try to be humorous, and to avoid white guilt as best they could. The results were excellent, enlightening, and cathartic, I think. I got a good seed out of it, the short poem I’m now calling “Black Humor”. Isaac had some really good stuff going, too; I hope he’s working on that seed.

My set was alright, lots of anthems. Found myself wishing I’d taken Cheryl’s advice and gone a bit more experimental. The best part was a poem about pomosexuality Cheryl and I cowrote (on the aforementioned 4 AM beer night) and performed together.

This was our first draft.

During the slam, Tara Brenner performed some really ornate, solid work, Janelle surprised me by going dark and vulnerable, Kristen blew my mind with her innovation, and goddamn Cheryl did that poem I love about glow-in-the-dark white boys! Boise steady takes risks and sticks the landing, all while wearing 4-inch heels. That’s the sign of a grown woman, handling shit in stilettos, if need be. For my part? These boots are made for walking. Bringing the chaos to a city near you.

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.


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.


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.