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Without Love, Your Poetry Is Irrelevant

man with flock

Its been years since I’d taken the train to Sacramento. I don’t exactly remember the last trip I made in the name of my biological family that still lives there. I didn’t belong there.  My birth-mother was right in giving me up and never looking back.

For this trip, I bought my first cane. My knee had been loud and unpredictable for two weeks. Deeply pained and random. I needed help. I bought the cane at W—g—-ns and getting off the train in Sac, when they offered a shuttle cart to the door of the station, I took it.

I came to Sacramento because my friend has been running a poetry series here for 15 years and this weekend was its anniversary. For 1/5th of a minute that morning, I thought to call and cancel… but: what else would I be doing the rest of the weekend?

I arrived at the theater, yet instead of pushing my way past the dozen women already in line, I stood outside in line with them. A wind began and the sun set and it was pleasant. I watched as gorgeous woman after woman, groups of female friends, daughters and mothers, came up and got in line behind me. No one paid me any mind.  I have no Game.  What dudes I did see were part of the show and ducked inside. Everyone, except me, was dressed up, at least ‘after church’ nice. And I was the only one with a drug store cane.

They let us in and I was led backstage to the dressing room. I knew Shawn from the Bay Area. A couple of faces I remembered from my last visit which was… a while ago.  A woman came in a couple of times to put supplies in the bathroom.  The guys entered and exited and joked, changed, and capped on one another’s athletic Shoe Game or lack thereof. I watched and listened and laughed.

The theater was full and the show ran smoothly though I saw little of it. I leaned against the wall stage right and watched one performer from the wings, but couldn’t clearly hear him. Plus: standing for a long period wasn’t going to work for me. I went back in the dressing room with Shawn and caught up over the couple of years I hadn’t genuinely been able to talk with him.

Truthfully: I was told when I was going on. Right after the comics, she said. When you hear everybody laughing, you’re next, she said.

She said: you’re in a set with two ladies. When you do your piece at the mic, don’t leave the stage, ok? Just step back a couple of steps and the next performer will go up, then another and you’ll go back and do one short piece, then you can walk off.

Sounded fine by me. But because of time, there would be no second round.

I heard laughter in the auditorium, but wasn’t thinking. No one came to the door unless it was another brother to hang out or crack jokes. But suddenly, from afar I heard my name called. I reached into the backpack at my feet, grabbed some papers, and then the door opened and I popped up and went out on stage.

I don’t have stage fright. Not really. I knew what I wanted to do and was ready. But: I walked out seeing nothing except a modest shadows of people in the room.  And there was great stillness.  It had already been a long night, at the 90 minute mark of a show that had started about 20 minutes late. But when I walked out on stage I was met with… um…

Nothing. The audience had already applauded after she said my name then disappeared to get me. I introduced my poem which I’d written after Maya Angelou’s passing earlier this year. Had no one in the room heard of Maya Angelou? That they didn’t care is one thing… But I called the Dr.’s name and the audience sat and waited, nary a grunt of recognition.

And then there’s this. Dr. Angelou sampled a lot of gospel in her performances, call backs to spirituals and whatnot. I’m no singer, but I’m also not very intimidated to try if something feels necessary. Plus: I wasn’t going to, ahem, ‘sing’ very long. I only wanted to ground the piece with music.

Here’s the original of the song I attempted:

So I do the poem. I can hear myself very clearly. I don’t sound horrible or laughable, though I wouldn’t have minded being snickered at. I hit the poem, to my ear, correctly– it sounds and moves well. But:

No laughs, but no support either.  The audience wasn’t feeling it. I finished to a smattering of applause, stepped back as instructed and the hostess was there to greet me. (After her bullying the crowd to applaud a little louder…)

Because the show was running so long, the three of us who read didn’t do a second round. I was okay with that. I was okay with travelling a hundred and change in miles to do one poem for this show. I guess I was also okay with doing a poem that fell over like a lead balloon.

I got off stage and thought: I’m not cute, like the others. I was in a knit short sleeve shirt, jeans instead of a suit, which I don’t own. I’m no longer young, that’s for sure. I wasn’t styling either, I was just There. Yet the audience seemed to stare through me.

What did I do wrong? No flavor? My approach to the mic? Did I not introduce the poem correctly? Was my timing off? I already said I wasn’t a singer– but was it really that bad?

It was near the end of the show. I watched the remaining performers. Then it was over and everyone was leaving to gradually make it over to the afterparty two blocks away. I certainly wasn’t dancing, and I recently learned I am an angry, awful drunk so drinking would be minimal. I neglected to even secure a ride to the club, assuming I could limp two blocks in the cool night. Plus: I was hoping I could still crash on my friends couch until morning.

I was last to emerge from backstage, most of the audience having already emptied to the lobby. One woman snapped photographs of Shawn and another poet. I walked up the aisle, looking across the room and saw two people, one who “Made Me Think” of one relative and another who “Made Me Think” of someone else. Both family members I’ve had to let go of. It took me a minute of staring at them before they dissolved into strangers. Why, of all people, did I hallucinate seeing them? Lonesome. Starved for support I wasn’t getting.  I limped to the lobby.

I was a nobody. The night was over and I, with my bad knee, was going to have to negotiate myself until the next morning. I wandered out into the lobby, waddling behind much older women. One dude, standing near the door as I came up, nodded, said he liked my poem– but said in the way of Being Nice.  I walked out to the sidewalk and stood amongst a throng of females and no one saw me. Any one whose eyes swept across me, kept going. Even if I were on fire, no one would approach me to even ask for a light. I looked for the host whose couch I thought I was going to sleep on that night, but didn’t see him. The audience stopped some of the brothers who’d performed and chatted them up. One woman asked why one man changed his bright red shoes.  The brothers were all handsome, young. I was not.

I saw Shawn emerge from the theater, his backpack on and my heart leapt.  He quietly angled through the crowd and something in me told me to follow him and I did, until a group of women stopped him to praise his performance and poems.  He chatted briefly and handed them flyers for his series back in Oakland. Then, he saw me. I asked if he was heading back to the bay that night and if he would drop me off. He said: Come on.

I could end here or on the long conversation we had during the ride. Our talk about racism, about Michael Brown and the situation in Ferguson. It branched into his son, Django Unchained, Fox News, 12 Years A Slave, Austin, Texas and racists in flatbed trucks. I could say it was the longest and most involved conversation I’ve had with him, irrespective all the years we’ve known one another. I could also say his ride saved my knee: I didn’t have to wait longer than 10 minutes for either of my two remaining connnections home, despite it being well after midnight on a Saturday.

But instead, I want to say this.

Poetry, without love, is dead. Without love– in the nucleus of the poem or within the poets voice/heart–  my poetry, is kind of irrelevant.  Its what’s missing in my work.  During the train ride there, I wanted to write.  But without loving support, a crew of people, a family, a love even for what I’m doing, what was I writing?   And to whom?  On the train, I began writing about my father– who’s been dead for 20 years.  Time has crash landed me on a middle aged life without any family or friends. I didn’t expect that.  I didn’t think I’d become That Dude.  Once, I would have been deeply angered by the world’s flagrant racism, sexism, character assassinations of the dead in the news…  The rows of black men laying dead in the street, their families mournful and helpless– Yet, with no nephews, brothers, sons of my own?  Disjointed empathy.  On my own, my anger felt impotent.  I stood on stage, my words and the darkness, and felt at a loss. Nothing bounced back from the void.  Void as in: My viewpoint from the stage.  But is the void, me?  I didn’t want to read poems, I wanted to be held. But where was any love for me.  I miss what family I knew and had. And maybe I miss my anger, too. But standing on stage in the dark this weekend, I thought, maybe I can’t do this anymore. I’m talking to myself, doing this…writing and performing poems… and for what reason?

I made it home, safely, quietly.  No one waiting for me, rooting for me or missing me while I was gone.

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