Booze, Not Books
Once I finally settled upon a form for my poem idea, I spent four months working on it. Intended for/ Inspired by BlackPoetsSpeakOut, the poem emerged slow-brewed, during my weekly half hour walks to the acupuncturist for the arthritis frosting my knee. During that walk, I’d think of a line and dictate it into the notepad on my phone. I put my phone back in pocket, walked more and allowed the words to swirl in my mind until something else would emerge and I’d add it.
Four Months. Understand as many as 10 days would pass with me not so much as thinking of writing or even making a shopping list. I preferred to Wish rather than Work. Eventually I took my dictated notes and re-wrote and expanded them– by hand– in a notebook, creating a list of couplets or extended faux-haikus. Finally, someone reached out to me and asked me to participate in a reading dedicated to their Black Lives Matter campaign. I said I would. One afternoon at work, I collected all my dictated and handwritten notes, and disappeared across the street into the library.
I liked my idea, my form. But I wasn’t thrilled and had been too depressed to muster excitement over the writing, or even anger over what I was writing about: racism, ignorance, bias, police, entitlement. I felt I’d already written poems about this 20 years ago and stopped because it was like re-writing the same poem over and over. I thought: who in history would I prefer to give all my notes to and have that person write it? Whose voice could help me?
I grabbed an anthology and sat with him and my notes and handwrote the poem combining everything I’d collected. I flipped through the anthology to get me started, to show me something, inspire me. But frankly it wasn’t much help. I just wanted his company. I took my handwritten poem back to the office, re-typed it, and let it marinate without re-reading it for a couple of hours. I printed it, read it, and marked it up. After four months, the only thing left was to read it before a crowd, to gauge how people respond to it, how it feels/sounds my throat and mouth.
For the reading they asked all the invitees to show up at 6:30 and read only one poem. I printed it and slid it into my backpocket and took BART to the Mission. I was purposefully late for the 7 pm start time because… they never start on time and I’m always early. A quarter to 7 I emerged from the train station and walked up the percolating street to the gallery. The address was easy to find on Valencia and at this hour the street busy with people and all the restaurants full. I walked up to the gallery looked inside and my heart stopped. Breath too.
A large open gallery space, sparkling white walls and several rows of chairs. Empty. Cold and Empty. In the back of the gallery I saw one man, the brother I was to check in with according to my email, (He did not send that email, by the way) pacing and talking on the phone. A long black coat hanging off his willowy tall frame. His back was to the street. When I saw him and nothing more, I flipped around and went the other way. I looked at my watch, 6:50. And then thought: How did I hear about this? A group email via facebook, with a flyer. But there was no facebook page set up, no event announcements on my feed. Did anybody advertise tonight? I walked the circumference of the whole block, thinking. And when I came back around from the other side and looked in, I again saw only one man in a black jacket– no one even gazing at the few pieces of art on the walls. A handwritten sign on the window. Of all the places on the street at this hour, this gallery and a antique store across the street were the only venues empty. I prayed, truly, for guidance. I didn’t want to be there– should I just leave? Show me a sign, Lord. If you believe in such things, He did– I saw no one I recognized, no black people, no easily profiled poet-writers. My poem waffle warm in my back pocket, I went home.
That next night while hanging with my friend Steve and his friends– we all went out drinking. At the end of the night as he dropped me off at my house, with his bowling buddy in the backseat, before I got out of the car I asked if I could read ‘this thing’ to them both. I did; though the three of us were LIT at that hour, whenever it was. No applause. Steve invited me to a “poetry thing” his mom was going to the next Friday night. One of his mom’s coworkers invited her, and he was inviting his little work crew, and me. Of course, I said.
That Friday arrived and I was sent an early morning text with the flyer attached. Reading it, I realized the event was a showcase with poets and comics. It was all black– a Chitlin Circuit entertainment night for the lower middle class. I’ve been here before, but my friend and his mom had not. We were here because his mom had a friend who was performing. But when we arrived and looked in, they both stopped, horrified.
It was a gallery– several rows of white chairs forming a V in the middle of the room. A drummer sat behind a full set. Several people had already come in and found places to sit. BUT: There looked to be no alcohol.
I thought there was gonna be tables and I expected maybe a bar or something, his mom said. She was frowning as we stood on the sidewalk looking in, allowing a couple to go inside ahead of us. She sent a text to her friend that read: No Alcohol? but by the time she repied, we had already left.
Meanwhile, my friend looked at me and said: You were right, James. And turned his back on the whole proceedings, immediately texting his friends who were meeting us there.
I tried explaining my experience in these showcase events, but the more I talked, the more they sneered. There’s no positive spin on poetry readings like this. You’re either down or immediately disgusted.
My friend and his mom both wondered about playing pool. We weren’t far from Jack London Square where years ago on Saturdays they both worked at the Farmer’s Market there, selling knitting and jewlery his mom makes. While she stood at the entrance of the gallery with her arms folded, I asked: “Do you know what they did with the Barnes and Noble down there where yawl used to work?”
No, she said.
But my friend knew and immediately grabbed and hugged me. The bookstore was converted into a huge entertainment palace called Plank and now instead of books they deal in booze. My friends coworkers walked up, one man and a woman. The man left us immediately, since he had a long commute back across the bay. The woman, Irma, is a closer friend to my friend than I am. She came with the three of us to Plank, which was our first time there.
The venue is as huge as a barn. My friends mom charmed the security guard who let us in the backdoor. The next security guard I saw was a year or two ahead of me in high school.
A videogame gallery exploded with color on our right. On the left, a small dining area serving fried foods; before us, a bar, and behind that a huge bowling alley– of which my friend is a league bowler and one of the best in the bay. Behind that alley was a smaller, kids alley. A pool table, another bar, then a raised balcony with more pool tables, now closed off for a private party. We signed up for a bowling lane then went out to the patio where there was another huge bar and a bocce ball court. We found a table, ordered drinks and talked.
I should end this with Irma, who is also a writer and every time I met her she mentions her notebooks and writing something. But turns out, she’s never read her work aloud (I hate my voice, she said) and never read for an audience. While sipping her cocktail, a notebook spontaneously emerged before her, and on the page, a 7 line paragraph she’d scratched out. She’s grown, in her 20’s somewhere, but seemed adolescent and small and frail. She read to us. It sounded fine, whatever it was about. My friend leaning in towards her, his mouth nearly agape. His mom on the opposite side, her arms folded on the table between her and her drink. Irma finished and looked up. And mom began saying: Your voice is wonderful, and she compared her with Amy Winehouse since her hair fell around her face in a similar way and they resembled one another in a dim-light four-drinks-in kinda way. And Irma said I really relate to Amy. And mom said You should be read more and so on and so forth. And while Mom and my friend talked to her, I watched as she quietly reached up and swept a tear from beneath one eye, then the other and sat and soaked in their words. Her chin down, her eyes on her paragraph as if she were being knighted. Even I tried encouraging her. (He preaching now, my friend stage whispered over me mid-sentence) But fear is so seductive. And comfortable.
And after ALL THAT… you wonder if at that point, I reached into my backpocket and put on the table the poem I’d been combing over for four months. The poem I’d grown fond of even as only a couple of drunk dudes heard it cramped in a Mustang late one night. But instead, my friend and his mom just comforted her and suddenly my friends phone vibrated and we all go up, stumbled drunkenly back inside and bowled.