Poetry & Performance

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 a) I transcribe for a living and it’s ingrained habit and b) 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 at 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 & 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 faded 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 wack words you 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.

Thursday Poems: A Trifecta

Hello from Bali!

So, naturally since I began my last post gloating about being on time for a change, I’ve ended up late for this one. This will not be a normal post, I’m afraid, no ramble about poetry today. I’m in Bali as part of the Bali Emerging Writers Festival, and it has been a crazy whirlwind of mad beauty, lush vistas, wonderful people and events. Which reminds me, if you happen to be in Denpasar this week, do come and see my reading at Dua Dunia.

Honestly, I’m so many different kinds of tired right now and I’m not going to have the chance to talk about anything in depth — but I didn’t want to leave you poetry-lovers without something good to read, so instead, I’ve decided to leave a link here to three different poems. Maybe we can switch things up around here and you tell me what you loved about them, or didn’t, eh? That’d be something, that’s for sure. Okay, without further ado, the trifecta:

1. Citizen, VI by Claudia Rankine.

2. Everybody Who Is Dead by Frank Stanford

3. Tonight, in Oakland by Danez Smith

I found all of these interesting in different ways, hopefully you will too. That’s all from me this week, I’ll be back next week with more details about all the things 🙂

Thursday Lit: Two Movies by Danez Smith & Eykelboom by Brad Watson

Right, so first off, let’s all take a moment to celebrate the fact I’m actually on time this week. Shit, I’m positively early. Right on the heels of that (tiny) success, however, comes this failure: I couldn’t pick a poem or a short story to feature today, at least not a single one. It was a bumper week for reading and it seemed like every day I found something new to talk about, something wonderful or deep or dark or strange or all of those things.

So I’m going to mention a few of them. First up, I was stunned by Danez Smith’s poem ‘Two Movies’. It’s straight up fucking excellent, and while toward the end of it, I thought there were weaker sections — weak only in comparison to the brilliance and power of what came before — it recovers beautifully and the overall effect of it is still a resounding success. It begins like this:

PITCH FOR A MOVIE: LION KING IN THE HOOD

1. cast list

Mufasa & his absence played by every father ever

Simba played by the first boy you know who died too young

Sarabi played by the woman in church who has forgot the taste of praise
in favor of the earth that hold her boy captive

Nala played by the girl crying on the swing for her valentine who now date the dirt

Timon & Pumbaa played by Ray-Ray & Man-Man, the joy of not-dead friends

Zazu played by the ghost of James Baldwin

Rafiki played by a good uncle with a bad habit, his lust for rocks on his lips

Scar played by the world, the police, the law & its makers, the rope-colored hands

The extended riff on Disney, on the Lion King, is incredibly well handled. If you were looking to pick a film that occupies centre place in our generation’s childhood, you’d be hard pressed to find a better choice — the bright, joyously-coloured imagery of it plays out in your mind when you read the poem, only paired now with a totally different narrative, one which is too horribly real for too many people. He mines it for all its worth, and it turns out it’s worth a hell of a lot, a veritable treasure trove of cultural iconography that was merely waiting to be reclaimed; remember, this was a movie about African animals written by white people.

(Disclaimer: I love that damn movie, I’m just pointing out why it was such an effective choice for this poem.) I won’t say any more on that, though, because there’s a whole lot more to be said for the poem, which it goes on to say better than I ever could. Also, it bears mentioning that a few weeks ago I wrote a poem referencing the Lion King heavily, and after reading this one, I realised how pathetically I had done so. I may go and burn that poem now.

You should definitely go and read this much better one though, go get a taste of suffering and beauty and pain, the lived experience of too damn many. Bravo, Danez, for laying out this essential roadmap, brick by hurtful brick.

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Of the many great stories I read this week, I think Eykelboom by Brad Watson has to take the top spot. It shares the same landscape as last week’s choice, Rope by Joshua Harmon, actually; it makes a home in the darkness of children. But whereas Rope relied on mystery and, to a degree, whimsy–in so much as the girls’ lyrical wonderings always seemed to occupy a place sideways to reality, rather than directly embedded in it–Eykelboom is a more direct and brutal examination of the cruelty of boys and men.

It begins like this:

Where had they come from, the Eykelbooms? The boys suspected Indiana, Illinois. Some crude and faceless Yankee state. The Eykelbooms had emerged and emigrated from it. It was a tiny, deeply threatening invasion.

I do not mean to say this story lacked subtlety, by the by. It had that in spades, and mystery too, coming later in the musing of adults wondering about events in their childhood, if it had happened the way they recalled, or ended the way they assumed. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more accurate portrayal of boyhood–of this particular kind of boyhood, this particular kind of run-down life–and I say that as someone who lived an approximation of it. The violence, overt and not; the cruelty, consciously chosen and not; the brotherhood of trespassing, the intangible otherness of it stretching between boys, somehow more real than anything else… It’s all here in this fantastic portrayal of the amoral darkness central to adolescence.

This was a superb story. You’ll read it and realise you need to read everything else this man has written; I know I did. Go forth and enjoy!