Are Poets Ever Booed?
Sometime around 2000 while between jobs, I joined a performance series named Four Brothers. It was the luckiest of gigs for me. The original Fourth brother couldn’t do that weekend of performances, and I had rent due. The show would cover it. I auditioned and got in.
Our Friday show in Berkeley was quite successful. Our task Saturday afternoon though, was to attend a Youth Camp in San Francisco and give them a taste of our show and do a little workshopping before that nights performance.
The show was organized by now playwright Will Power. Back Then he was an electric and well loved performer, home grown in San Francisco. He was the main brother and organizer of these shows. The second was Tkalla, a poet, performer from New York. Roger was third, a fun and gifted storyteller from the UK, and me.
The Yourh Camp was indoors in this huge auditorium somewhere in SF. Only Roger, Will and myself could do the afternoon event. We entered to a giant open room of about 100 or more teenagers, mixed races, sexes.
Will is effortless at getting, keeping attention. He is a charismatic volcano of a human being. All energy and charm and the room sat up obediently for him. He is Easily magnetic and genuine and comfortable on stage. The audience would do whatever he asked. He introduced Roger next, a brother with a gorgeous and exotic English voice. He could have Recited the alphabet to a standing ovation, but he’s a great writer and storyteller and gained the rooms trust and love immediately. I was introduced finally, and the moment Will mentioned I was from Oakland— the auditorium collectively booed.
This, again, was a generation before gentrification. Back then Oakland was in SF’s shadow, a town assumed to be full of sideshows and Black criminals. So, you know, f*ck me
We all were taken aback but Will calmed the room enough for me to at least read a poem. I stepped forward, But it was hard. I felt now like they were chastised into listening. They were bored with me before I said hello. When we broke into little groups, I got the smallest collection of mostly shy kids practicing compassion and who couldn’t get anywhere near the others as a thick ring of people gathered around each of them.
The Saturday and Sunday night shows were great, but I don’t remember them as well I remember that sound rising in the room shot towards me like a cannon. My offense in just being from Oakland, and apparently not being cool.
There’s several directions to now steer this story. But I want to pair this with is what happened a couple of weeks ago.
I agreed to a Friday reading at a restaurant I hadn’t visited before. The poetry event was held in the large dining area with brick walls, like old stand up comedy clubs. The room had maybe 20, 30 people. I was paired with another poet who asked me to read first since his wife and family were still on their way. So, the hosts introduced me first. I was fine with that.
As I stood in front of the room, I realized there is one single table in the corner to my left, less than 3 or 4 feet away from me. Two women sat there, apparently finishing salad, tea. But it wasn’t until I began, did I realize they were NOT there for poetry. Yet as you would sit in audience looking, listening, you might see them as being on stage with me because they were so close.
They did not stop talking.
I’m standing reading using a huge speaker, yet the two women began competing with me. They were feet away, and all in my ear, and as I sent my voice above them (or tried to) they went louder and louder. I tried to power through it. The Show Must Go On and all that. But my second poem in my 15 minute set, I struggled to focus and hear myself. I tried.
I began the third poem, looked up at the room, and realized half the audience was now staring at the women in the corner.
I stopped cold. I turned to the little table, and turned all attention over to them. I give, I said. I can’t do this, do you want the room.
The talking woman stopped and looked up at me, surprised. No one else moved — especially Not the hosts— until my friend and Godmother all the way in back, stood up and pointed to the part of the room behind her where several empty tables were. She told them to go there. I stood quietly and watched, waited and would have stepped off stage completely right then, okay without finishing my time or anything else.
The women looked at one another as to consider what to do. The other woman with her back to me kept it that way as they stood, crossed through the audience and went to a table well in back. I finished my set (listening to myself calm down, my anger cooling, settling and finally leaving). Yet, like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart I still heard them chatting away loudly the rest of my time.
Ok: this isn’t like being booed. But it seemed a form of heckling, and for me, far more disrespectful than 100 teenagers collectively thumbing their noses at pre-gentrified Oakland. The teens, I wouldn’t profile as racist. All three of us performers were Black. And perhaps the ladies too, weren’t conservative supporters of supremacy.
But both rooms challenged me to fight for and claim my space, my voice. How as an artist do you offer art to a room that’s positioned to refuse it? I’ve performed sober in a room of arrogant drunks. Bars and clubs where people don’t really listen. As a poet, how do I boldly offer poetry to a room anxiously interested in erasing me?
Afterwards, no one— not even the hosts— mentioned the talking women (and the hosts, interestingly, kinda hung me out there and watched as opposed to protecting me, their guest, or supporting me in that weird moment.) well, except one person whom I knew, who bought a copy of my book and said that I handled it nicely. So there’s that.
I booed once. Not a poet, a rapper whom I hoped stayed underground. Yes, I was a lit. But moreso, I recall standing there listening and realized No, I don’t want to raise my hands in the air for any reason except to show you the exit. Why am I listening to this? Why aren’t you trying harder. This is whack. I don’t want this. No— boo!
* This post turns is connected to another from earlier this year.