I was scheduled to read at a backyard poetry event in West Oakland on a Saturday. Days after agreeing, I was coincidentally asked to read again in San Francisco that same night.
I hate having to read on weekends. Can’t say why, I’m just stingy with them. So even the thought of this made me grumpy. But suddenly having the day double-booked felt like penance for me completely ghosting a Saturday night reading recently. Something I never thought I’d do, but I did.
I agreed to both readings. Sigh.
Walking through West Oakland was mildly mortifying. My grandfather lived in this neighborhood in the 1980’s, so it was as familiar to me as my own bedroom. But it isn’t anymore. Now, the entire neighborhood is someone else’s. I can’t even prove my grandfather ever existed. And me being adopted, was he ever mine to begin with?
When I saw a man remove seats from a van and carry them off somewhere, I knew that was where I was going. I cannot explain why I am compulsively early but I was first to arrive and felt as useless as a battery on a slice of bread. I sat and waited and watched as the audience filled in around me.
I turned down beer for water. And me, a so-called artist. Sacrilege! This is me trying to stay clear and alert for the reading—and be respectful. I don’t write high, I don’t enjoy reading high, nor buzzed. I’d rather save my drinking and smoking for when I don’t have to think.
Perhaps here, I should talk about being introverted. Though I have nothing valuable to add regarding The State of Introversion that you don’t already know. Just know that during set up and arrivals, I sat quietly and waited for the reading to start. I felt like a stubborn old house with a new freeway being constructed around it.
Just before the reading, my friend appeared at the gate. She stood for a moment and stared across the yard. Unsure if she wanted to stay or leave. I would have supported either choice. I didn’t look directly at her either as to not sway her to one way or another. Someone from her side of the yard offered a chair and she waved it off, even as there were no more visible chairs available. After a while, though, she crossed over to me. I gave her my seat and she offered a ride home after this which I would have happily taken, but told her about the second reading in the city. She asked only for gas money. Considering my plan was to Lyft home anyway, I’d rather the money was hers.
I love the idea of a semi-regular backyard reading. If I had a backyard perhaps I’d do something like this. The yard was weed nappy and crowned with walnut trees and a big wooden fence. The mic system was expensive and the effort to run the show, minimal. This wasn’t a reading, we were kinda hanging out letting one person talk at a time. I was last to read and wondered about my voice in the house next door or across the way.
An aside: I did wonder about the ghosts here. I wondered about the families that once resided on this block, in this house, and where are they now? What happened? What happened to my house and family? When I took the porch, I wanted to read past the audience for the ghosts, the families I didn’t know. I wondered who beyond the fence could hear me and what did they think? I wondered about my years-dead grandfather, once residing some 7 blocks from here—what is the current story occurring in his former house?
After the reading, a young brother approached and said: You woke me up.
My payment in full for the entire day.
The weather turned cold and my friend and I pushed onward to San Francisco.
I didn’t think it was possible to find gas for less than $4 a gallon, but we did and filled her tank. And for our trouble, found parking in the Mission across the street from my second venue.
As a preemptive strike, I won’t say where or what the event was, because I am often guilty of being snarky and critical. Is that cool?
The event was in a new-to-me space with a bar in front and a performance space in back. I, again, had no desire to drink and my friend wouldn’t touch it. So we sat and waited for the earlier event to disperse and for my event to start. People lurked and exchanged cards for what seemed a long time. They hovered together in a weird whisper hive and stood there. The staff began re-arranging chairs and someone made a loud announcement and slowly people to move.
The event I was here for turned out to be a combination of comics and poets.
For audience, I wonder if its weird.. jarring, really.. to flip between comics and poets. Tonally, it can be strange. Poets don’t promise anything. Comics promise a laugh. I read after a solid comic with a strong delivery and presence. I was thinking in terms of length of poem and used my time to read about gun violence. I never knew I’d be reading with comics. The comic before me was very good and kept the room murmuring with laughter his entire time. But it must’ve been a kind of whiplash to be laughing at him, then be confronted with me talking, seriously, about bullets and guns.
There’s much to be shared between stand-ups and poets. There are routines by George Carlin I could argue that belongs in English textbooks as much as poems of Dylan Thomas. Both forms traffic in language, its absurdity and its logic. And we both have to learn how to work rooms—how to listen to the audience listening to us. Poets often hide from their audience, ducking behind paper, for example. Comics are discouraged from hiding behind notebooks, even as they often have to work out new material and there’s no other or better way than to be sloppy in front of paying and inebriated customers. Comics know a joke can be made better by cutting certain lines or words from their delivery. Hopefully, poets understand the same.
The thing is: Poets don’t understand time.
When I arrived, I needed to verify that I only had 5 minutes to read. 5 minutes, to me, is nothing. One poem. And if I would have really known all I’d get was 5 minutes on a Saturday night in the City, I would have said no. It wouldn’t have been worth the bus and Bart fare.
But I read and once off stage passed another poet who sweetly wanted me to keep reading.
I was told I only had five minutes, I said.
This poet got to 7 minutes and kept going, not really looking up from their stack of papers to the host who by this point turned on her cell phone’s flashlight to signal the poet off stage. By the time the message was received, the poet then asked the audience to vote on which poem they should end with. Thereby, extending their set time by a couple more minutes, atop the 3 minutes it took to read the last poem anyway.
The poet made me laugh for being caught in their own world on stage. But the host did something that began grating my nerves until they shredded.
The host stood on stage with her back to the room, then read each person’s biography off her cell phone, whispering her rehearsal into the mic. She then turned to face us and read it a second time, this time with feeling, introducing the performer.
Is that funny? Don’t let me think for you — it is not. About the fourth time, I felt genuinely insulted and annoyed on a cellular level. I don’t know why it made me so angry, but it did.
After the shuffle of comics and poets, the feature for the night finally got on stage for her proposed 30 minute set. She said: “Its 9:30, and it’s the time when we’re supposed to be ending. So, if any of you guys need to leave…”
Mid-sentence, I kindly grabbed my friend and made four long steps to the door. She followed me, laughing. We made a food run since I hadn’t eaten since breakfast that day then got on the bridge. I felt an urgent need to be home and stop.