Here’s how it went down.
I’m sitting at a table, drink in hand. You, young white guy, sit down next to me to talk to a mutual friend. You tell us you’re going to read tonight at the open mic. I think back to the last open mic I attended, when an old, old white woman (mid 70s at least) got up to read a long erotic poem about her clit. I think about the old, old white man (60s I’d say), who got up after her, zeroed in on where she sat, and read a long erotic poem about his throbbing cock. I tell the others this is why I don’t go to open mic nights anymore. Writing this now, I remember a different young white guy who got up after the elderly duo (a private school kid still in his uniform, tie askew, accompanied by his dad) and gave a frenzied performance remarkable for its incoherence and the repetition of the word rape. His thrusting motions.
I read that night too.
You, young white guy, laugh good-naturedly at this, tell us you’ve been doing this for a while. You have a notebook but you haven’t looked at it, and you seem remarkably calm. You tell me this is just a hobby, not something you’re invested in. You tell me you got addicted to the adrenaline rush, but you don’t feel it anymore. You want to be a journalist. Still, you put your name down on the list, to read for two minutes. Something bothered me about this, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. I’ve never heard anyone say that before, and it seems almost magical to me. You mean you don’t have to claw your way through a thorn-field of fear to get to the stage? You mean you don’t have chains around your mouth you need to unwind, link by clanking link, before you can speak?
I leave after the featured poets end, say goodbye to my friends, before the open mic begins.
At home I see poet Danez Smith post a link to a podcast, I click on it, listen in. I’m about to give up when I hear Paul Tran begin to speak. Here’s what he had to say, verbatim, from around the 22.5 minute mark.
…I think often times when I’ve seen people perform poems, there is an embodiment and vulnerability, a space that closes between the writer and the speaker of the poem. But I also feel like, some folks, for different ability reasons, or different relationships to audiences and being seen, like – I know folks who can’t go to poetry because if they were to write their stories and the people of their lives found them, they would die, right? And so, to never do an actual reading, actually keeps these poets alive. To write under a pseudonym keeps these poets alive, right.
And I think of war refugees who flee political conflicts, to see their face in a space, would endanger them, so they don’t actually have the opportunity for performance, right, and they have to find ways of expressing that same embodiment, that same vulnerability on the page, or on Tumblr, you know, wherever, that still protects them, right.
I’m including this in its entirety because I transcribe for a living so it’s an ingrained habit and because shortly after hearing this, I went to bed. Then I got up the next day, went about my business, and ended up spitting out a mangled version of it on Twitter. Which, let’s be real, is what Twitter was designed to do. I spat it out because you, young cocky white guy, were still under my skin. I think about how difficult it is for me to speak in public about my sexuality and my faith–recurring subjects of my poems, my prayers–how, even now, I still hear my mother’s words, ‘I’d break your legs if you turned out gay’ and my aunty, who went further and said she’d hang me. I can never unhear them.
And I still remember the day my older brother shouted ‘fuck you’ at my mum, how he turned and ran out the house, screen door banging behind him. How my mum turned to my older cousin and ordered him to bring him back. How my older cousin, with sad resignation, loped after my brother. How my brother came slouching back, shadowed by my cousin, a haunted look in his eyes. How my mother closed the space between them in a second, screaming, and beat my brother. How he screamed, my aunty screamed, we all screamed, bodies colliding in the living room as if made of metal and magnetised to violence. I remember too, the sirens chasing the screams. The cop cars, the ambulance, the white neighbours watching from their fresh cut lawns, mouths agape.
Every act of violence, every bruise, every threat and scream echoes my present.
That was a long ass time ago, though, and it’s rare for those echoes to take on the fullness of the current. But even as memories, they still pack a punch, and I still don’t go out to gay bars & clubs, for fear of being seen. I still only perform my queerness in my writing, or online. Removed from my body, but still so important for it to stay functioning, these small recorded breaths. I realise I’ve gotten sidetracked, but listen, young guy, you’re not to blame for my pain or my shackles, my struggle to speak, or all the many times I refuse to get up. But you are occupying a limited space and limited time where so many who struggle to be seen and heard on a daily basis might have a chance to do so. And you’re telling me you don’t even care? That this is meaningless to you, or just a rush at best?
Meanwhile, what I said on Twitter is that, as a baseline, that’s messed up. You should give a shit about what you’re saying. Not that it needs to be an emotional rollercoaster, but that you need to at least care about what you’re delivering. And if you care, you’re going to be a bit nervous. Now I’m going to give way to Paul again, because, once more, he said it better:
I think what I am more interested in is these myths about the detached poet from their work, which creates the environment for these boring readings, or unemotional readings, as if sentimentalism is a bad thing or magic is a bad thing. So I think it’s both a training issue and a sensibility issue, where it’s like–one of my mentors, Laura Brown (*), always told me, it is a gift when you share your poem to strangers or even to people you love, and each time it’s a different gift. It’s a gift because you’re asking yourself to access that place where the poem is born, not the words, but like the magic of the poem is born, and to give that to someone who may not have wanted to hear your poem today, expected to hear your poem today, whatever, and so I think if, if that was in the tool kit for poets, if that was in the job description for poets, I would be so much more hyped for poetry. And like different kinds of poetry, but right now, it’s not the thing, so. (*Not sure if I heard that name right).
To be clear, young man, I don’t care that you’re white or that this is a hobby for you. You could be the most privileged man on the planet, but so long as you cared about what you were going to share with me, I’d listen to it. Now I’m not going to tell y’all that only poets of colour, or broken poets with broken pasts like mine should be able to talk in these spaces, or that when you do speak, it needs to be meaningful and heavy–I’m saying when you speak at all, it is meaningful. It’s meaningful whether you want it to be or not because a room full of people are listening. And if you’re going to get up there just for the sake of being there and not give a shit about that, I’m going to walk away. And for the rest of you, if you deliver some messed up words you do care about, but which are racist, homophobic, or misogynistic, I’m going to walk too.
I am certain there are people who will disagree with me about aspects or perhaps all of this, and that’s cool too. I’m not telling y’all to read different things, I’m not telling organisers to change how they’re running these events, I’m just telling you what I value, and why it is, more often than not, you’re only going to see my back as I turn and leave.