Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Terri, Matt, Cyrus, and the Long Island Scene

            Cyrus Chai stands hard by the Bay Shore station of the Long Island Railroad. So much of this island’s life revolves around the railroad that this venue’s location comes as no surprise. Poetry needs its economic lifelines. 
            Bay Shore sits in the middle of the island’s south shore. It’s a near-exurb commuter town and a hub for ferries to Fire Island, a barrier island and summer resort both charming for its lack of car traffic and infamous as the site of Frank O’Hara’s thusly ironic death by beach taxi.
            The wife and husband team of Terri Muuss and Matt Pasca have been staging the Cyrus Chai Reading Series here for the past two years (as of this June 2017 writing). They started the series with a vision, a mission to provide a place for poets to feel safe doing their thing, whatever their thing might be; a place free from hate speech and judgment, and a place to highlight the diversity of their town and proclaim the beauty of diversity in the world. The café’s owner, Cyrus, a man of Bengali heritage, born in Zimbabwe and raised in England, embraces the mission. According to Terri, when the couple met Cyrus, they immediately realized that he shared their vision for the world.
            Terri and Matt make a conscious effort to book pairs of features diverse in both their backgrounds and their aesthetics. One of tonight’s features is Christina Rau, a thirty-something Italian American poet from the western end of the island, whom I know because I live here and because Long Island is the kind of place where a poet will know many of the other poets resident in these two counties with a population of three million (seven-and-a-half million, if we count Brooklyn and Queens as part of the geographical expression). The other feature is Michelle Whitaker, a former Cave Canem Fellow, one of whose poems has appeared in The New Yorker.
            Forty or so people fill the three small adjacent rooms of the café. It is literally standing room only. The rooms’ walls are decorated alternately with painted gray panels, murals on wide planks of wood and exposed brick. The floor is gray tile, and the long coffee bar features clean lines of oak and maple. A brass rack of sorts supports a line of silver pour-over filters. Black-labelled clear glass and pewter cannisters display the line-up of ground global coffee and loose tea blends. Filtered light escapes burlap-veiled circular openings in the rectangular metallic ceiling tiles. The light’s soft beams bathe sheeny natural wood tables. You might call the place warm contemporary, which suits its mission. Terri and Matt make the rounds, she in floral dress, he in tee shirt and jeans. I know from them that the room will likely include current and former students. The couple teach Sunday poetry workshops in this same space, and Matt has taught English at Bay Shore High School for twenty years.
            Terri opens the reading with a quotation beginning “community requires the confession of brokenness.” She then goes on to introduce Christina Rau. Stationed before a mic stand set up in the smallest middle room (All communicate through ample square archways), Rau reads a number of poems to the quiet crowd, who applaud politely after each one. The crowd is indeed diverse, reflecting the town’s demography: 30 percent white, 30 percent black, 30 percent Latino, and ten percent Asian and “other.” Several of the poems feature a “space theme,” as in outer space inflected with feminism and familial relations. After one of these poems, Terri awards a pouch of “astronaut ice cream” to an audience member who answers a question about the Fantastic Four.
            Christina relinquishes the mic to Matt, who comments on the importance of this community, then introduces Michelle Whitaker. She is a young poet, and her poems feature forsaken loves, young men lost to violence, and memories of imperfect family life. She reminds me that we write and share different sorts of experiences at different times of life; and reminds me that Matt and Terri have set out to create a reading that includes poets of all ages, which many readings on Long Island do not. They tend to cater either to youthful spoken word enthusiasts or to people over sixty seeking the comforts of a second family. These dual phenomena recur on local scenes all over the country.  
            Michelle cedes the mic to Terri, who calls for further praise of both poets, then gives them big hugs. A lot of hugging happens here. Terri then announces a break, so the gathered can buy coffee. True to her word, she holds the break to five minutes, and keeps the reading highly structured and schedule. This structure promotes the feeling of safety, of the possibility of creative chaos in a safe space, because, as Matt and Terri claim, adults are no different from children in needing a sense of security. She announces that tonight’s readings should contain “no hate speech, no racism, no sexism, no homophobia,” and urges people to limit themselves to a single poem so that the owner might go home at a decent hour.
            The open mic opens with a science teacher from Bay Shore High School, who reads a poem about students. His poem is erudite and breezy. Matt then announces that there are a number of “almost graduates” from the high school in our midst, including the 2017 Outstanding English Student of the Year, who reads next, a brief story about graduating. The student who follows him, in introducing herself, quotes her Instagram bio: “artist, feminist, Buddhist, revolutionary.” Terri announces the next reader as “the daughter of my heart” and “one of my favorite people in the universe,” who gives her first-ever public reading. This young poet gets through her poem and leaves the stage to receive a hug from Matt, who then announces a “Cyrus regular.” This regular affirms that she’s been coming here for months and has “grown a big love for this place.” Next up is Matt and Terri’s son Rainer, one of their two child prodigies (Presidential trivia experts who have appeared on many morning television shows). The next reader is here on a student visa. She tells the audience how she’s fearing the expiration of that visa, then reads a spare, beautiful poem about the appearance of a vulnerable girl. A middle-aged man wearing a bowler hat, his trademark, apparently, reads another in a series of love poems. Terri’s “Sistah from another Mistah” follows with a more specifically intimate love poem. Another young poet, fresh from a trip to Thailand, reads a poem about a walk in that country’s mountains. In a bizarre turn of events, a man dressed up as “The Captain” of The Captain and Tennille performs a monologue and a poem in the voice of said captain, his Long Island accent troubling the surface of that one-time Beach Boy’s sound. A young woman reads a tribute to her deceased friend, a suicide by leap at twenty. A man equally young, new to the reading, then reads a poem he’s finished just today, from his cell phone, a poem surprisingly intense and skillful in its raw state. A college student back for the summer continues the youthful run with a poem chock full of images combining religious pilgrimage with a version of mass American culture featuring McDonald’s French fries and McChicken. His second poem (He is the only one to break the one-poem-per-poet rule) includes the first profanity of the night, in service of Sisyphus’s desire to challenge Zeus. Another recent high school graduate steers the reading back toward love with a simple poem filled with refrained lament for a lost lover.
            A stalwart of the Long Island scene, Deborah Hauser, whom Terri has announced as a “feminist goddess woman warrior,” next reads a tribute to her long-suffering aunt, a symphony of “brokenness.” Another stalwart follows: Mary Jane Tenerelli, who has co-edited, with Terri, an anthology of New York women’s poetry called Grabbing the Apple. Like Hauser, she is a proficient poet, deft in her use of metaphor and line. Tenerelli gives way to Russ Green, who has himself hosted a Long Island series or two. Green’s life appears to revolve around poetry. I’ve run into him at a half-dozen different series all over the Island. He energetically delivers a poem about a mystery woman in New Orleans, reminding me of his mentor George Wallace, an post-Beat elder of the tight island-wide community.
            After Russ comes “one of our recent Cyrus regulars,” a youngish woman of West Indian descent who reads about her failed marriage. Her piece sounds more like prose than poetry, but it is heartfelt, as most of tonight’s performances have been. Matt then introduces yet another recent high school graduate, who reads a poem about the tribulations of a first-year college student. A young woman whom Terri “has missed greatly and loves fiercely” reads a poem whose subject she claims not to be sure of. It describes a beloved in a series of images both broad and narrow, most of it genuinely gripping. Matt then announces the penultimate reader, the only recent high school graduate to feature here. He reads a self-deprecating love poem and a poem about being black and American in a foreign land.
            The reading nearly over, Matt announces that he and Terri will be staffing a booth at tomorrow’s Bay Shore Arts Festival. The evening’s final open mic-er follows, playing and singing a Radiohead song. Matt mentions that he’s closed many readings here, and I think that Matt and Terri are wise to make sure no well-intentioned member of this poetry community has to chase the vapor trail of a strum and melody. But the true closer is Terri, who thanks everyone for “sharing this space with Matt and me.” She exhorts people to “go out and love each other more.”

                                             Terri Muuss at the Cyrus Chai mic

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Slam and the Art of Moving On

It’s a cold day in New Orleans. 25 degrees this morning. Two days into Mardi Gras season. I’m walking down Canal Street, holding a King Cake in one hand and a big cup of chicory coffee in the other. My rental car is waiting in a lot near Basin Street. African American Shakespear, Shake, is waiting in tiny Violet, Louisiana, a dozen miles down the Mississippi.

My last time here, Shake offered to drive me around the Ninth Ward, to see what it was after Katrina, the catastrophe now almost ten years in the past. Ten years is a short time in the life of a city, but a long time in the life of a poet and a poetry scene. So is a week, and during my last week here, over a year ago, we never got to take that ride.

Now I’m driving my little low-mileage silver sedan down Rampart Street, past Louis Armstrong Park (Congo Square), along the boundary between Tremé and the French Quarter. Yesterday, when I asked Shake how to get to his house, he said, “Just get on Rampart and keep going.” And I do, down St. Claude Avenue (where for twelve years Shake has hosted the poetry open mic at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club) over the canal bridge and into the Lower Ninth Ward. St. Claude is dotted with low-rise commercial buildings. Down the streets that traverse it, shotgun shacks run in rows to a man-made basin on the north end and on the south, the Mississippi, by way of Holy Cross. The streets are serene. It’s easy to believe they aren’t mean. But then it’s 10 a. m. and, at least for New Orleanians, too cold to stay outdoors.

Out beyond the Ninth Ward lie neighborhoods with names like Arabi, and then, beyond them, the ever-more-rural towns of St. Bernard Parish: Chalmette, Meraux, and Violet, where Shake and I will meet, just a few miles above bayou country, near the site of the Battle of New Orleans. I am surprised to find Shake living this far out, among the cows and roads canopied with live oaks. He is a spoken-word icon of Black New Orleans, a man who made his poetry name in some of the city’s hardest places. And here he is living in what looks to me like Crackerland.

I pull up to what should be Shake’s address, a dull brown single-wide trailer on a lone block between St. Bernard Highway and a Mississippi River levee. I’m here early, and Shake is still groggy when he answers the phone. A minute later he appears in the doorway. Shake is a tall, powerfully built man of 40. He’s a little heavier than when I saw him the year before. I walk up the creaky wooden steps, we bro hug, and I lay my king cake on his kitchen table.

The long kitchen/living room has seen better days. The ducts, Shake tells me, aren’t working right. He’s got a space heater set up near the couch, across from an entertainment center and shrine to his successes as a poet and educator, a table topped with newspaper clippings under glass. He disappears into the back room for a few minutes, and returns wearing a tee shirt that reads “South Bronx Jobs Corps.” On a tour stop in the Bronx, he took time to work with kids there, as he does so often in New Orleans. Shake has already told me he’s been unemployed for a while, the reason he hasn’t been able to get his truck up and running.

The first time we met a Sweet Lorraine’s, he afterward drove me back to my hotel in the Central Business District. That night he appeared strong, energetic and optimistic about poetry and his place in its world. I remember he was wearing a Dillard University shirt. He arrived like a celebrity, all the older businessmen gathered in the club yelling “Shake!” as he walked through the door, two young girls from Alabama and Mississippi, who showed up for the open mic (the entire audience), hanging on his words, and the small circle who gathered on the sidewalk after the reading performing for him, and listening to his stories about time spent in the movie biz.

Maybe it’s the setting and the intimacy of a one-on-one interview, but Shake now seems a more somber man. He sits leaning forward in the middle of a gold, crushed velvet couch. When I ask him to tell me about himself, he begins from the true beginning. He was born to a young single mother in St. Bernard Parish, who decided that the best thing for him would be for her father and his wife to raise young Shelton, named for a father who was no longer in the picture. Shelton’s adoptive mother and father ran a major black nightspot on Claiborne Street in New Orleans. He had a good home, and lived, unusually for an African American boy in Greater New Orleans in the 1970s and early 1980s, in a predominantly white parish, an experience that’s allowed him to be comfortable with friends and acquaintances of all races. (As late as 2000, the parish was 88 per cent white. Today St. Bernard is more racially diverse—thanks in large part to losing nearly half its population in the wake of Katrina—but it remains a 73 per cent white suburb of a city that is 60 per cent black.)

Complicating matters for Shake was the continuing presence of his birth mother, who revealed her blood relation to him when he was just five years old. When he asked about his father, she told him he wasn’t worth talking about. For decades the absence of his father, the mystery, would drive Shelton to prove himself worthy, to become “someone great.” When he was eight years old, his family transferred him to a predominantly black New Orleans school, to an entirely new environment, away from the school where he had been a popular student known for his freestyle rapping, and where he had run for Class Treasurer and won. Shelton made the adjustment, and continued honing his rap skills, while developing into a fine athlete, eventually winning a scholarship to Northwestern Louisiana State. Unfortunately, a major injury ended his career and sent him on to his next proving ground, the U. S. Marines.

While he was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, Shelton fortuitously discovered that his father had served as a Marine on the same base, and that he had gone on to own a hotel, and that, as his birth mother had claimed, he was a womanizer who had fathered other children in different parts of the country. He discovered too that his father had died at 44. He would never get to know him. After leaving the Marines, and separating from his wife, Shelton went back to New Orleans, and took his elder son (now 22 and out of the house) with him.

When he arrived, an old friend asked him to cut some rap tracks for an album. One day, however, the friend’s brother was gunned down on the street, and Shake was left without a partner. At a crossroads, he thought back on a movie he’d seen in Virginia, the movie “Slam,” starring spoken-word legend Saul Williams, and it occurred to him that poetry might be a ticket. A little while after writing his first poem, “Patience,” on a piece of cardboard, he signed up for an open mic on Julia Street (in what is now being called the Arts District). He signed as “African American Shakespear,” and proceeded to blow the room away. Then, unfortunately, he ran into a phenomenon of some spoken-word venues around New Orleans, the open mic freeze-out. Encouraged by the reception he got, he returned to the same venue three weeks in a row, and signed his name first or second on the list each time, and not once was called to the stage. The regulars were apparently feeling threatened. Shake never went back.

Instead he started to go the lesser-known venues, where, as he says, “the big-timers didn’t want to go.” As time went on, he developed a following that swelled crowds at these smaller spots. He was entering the realm of local spoken-word icons like Sunni Patterson, with whom he’d sometimes share the stage. One night the previous host of the Sweet Lorraine’s open mic got into a fight with the club’s owner. At the time the politics of other predominantly black venues—“Other cats bullying the venues,” hosts keeping certain stars off the mic so as not to have certain other poets overshadowed—were getting to Shake. He was even considering moving from New Orleans, to keep his career as a poet going. (Shake makes a point to tell me that if he’d known of white venues, he might have gone to these, but division between local predominantly white poetry readings and predominantly black spoken-word performances, and his own lack of awareness of the entire New Orleans scene, were such that he didn’t.) So when the owner of Sweet Lorraine’s approached him, he thought for a moment about other peoples’ maybe misconstruing his intentions in becoming host, but took the job, recalling his adoption, saying to himself, “Now They’re not going to have another poet’s that’s gonna come through this city that’s gonna’s say they don’t have a place.” (To this day he saves as records and mementos the sign-up sheets from all the open mics he’s hosted, including those salvaged from the wreckage of Katrina.)
Eventually Shake joined forces with other premiere New Orleans spoken word artists—Patterson, Asali Devan, GF Soldier, L. Edwards, Lionel King, and Asia Rainey—on the 2005 New Orleans Slam Team, which established New Orleans as a presence on the national scene (Chancelier “Xero” Skidmore, from nearby Baton Rouge, had a few years prior, gained fame as an individual competitor). That same year, of course, Katrina hit, devastating the city, but at the same time introducing Shake to a national media audience through Def Poetry Jam and Spike Lee’s HBO documentary When the Levees Broke. (A clip of which appears below.) He could now book himself into venues around the country and, for a time, work in Hollywood. He had indeed made a career out of spoken word.

Back on the home front, however, things had changed. A lot of the established venues were gone, and Shake had to reestablish Sweet Lorraine’s open mic. When he did, the new crop of New Orleans slammers came to him when they needed a venue to qualify for nationals. He obliged, but, by his account, was not given his due or included in the team’s plans as member or slam master, the equivalent of coach. Their plans ultimately included the creation of a second city team, now known as Slam New Orleans or Team SNO, a multi-racial team which has since taken the spot as THE New Orleans national team, winning nationals in both 2012 and 2013. Though he doesn’t put it quite this way, he understands that some people no longer want him to be a leader in New Orleans slam. You can hear the pain and bitterness in Shakespear’s voice as he shares the history, and see in his story how slam can eat its elders (who are generally still quite young). Slam is a teen’s or twenty-something’s game, and he is running into generational succession and, very likely, some jealousy.

Still, he keeps on at Sweet Lorraine’s, and, as one might expect of any serious writer, he keeps practicing his art. He shows me the worked-over manuscript of an impressive poem called “I’m Here Now,” a verse of which goes

                People always hated
                Since I was a lil child
                My only concern was
                Making my parents proud
                Love overpowered Hate

                I’m Here Now

                I’m Here Now

To hear him perform the whole poem, even here in his modest parlor, is to be impressed with the power and sincerity of his lines and his voice. Also impressive is his professed love for writing, his need and passion. A devout Christian, he confesses, “It helps me fight some of those old demons that take on your conscience. When I write these poems, they’re for my own personal release. If I can recite a poem to my God who brought me through all these things, I can be content. I have some of my best free-style moments reciting only to Him. I’ll never be able to record them on paper, because they won’t come out right. When He knows it coming directly from me to Him, then it’s a greater pleasure. I have pleasure knowing that I can take the pain away, and it’s going to be to the pleasure of the Most High. I don’t want to have to go write, to say I’m gonna go win some competition. That’s not to say I’m not going to slam. I slam, because I’ve seen what slam can bring to different cities and states.”

What Shake has written for public consumption he has written for the stage. Some of his craft will translate to the page, but he may have to transform the rest; at least to some degree, add to his versifier’s bag of tricks, IF, that is, he wants to venture beyond the powerful, but not all-powerful, world or spoken-word and slam. I think of where that path can lead. I think of the Nuyorican poet Willie Perdomo, who has gone from a childhood in East Harlem and early fame as a spoken-word artist at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café and on Def Poetry Jam, to life as the author of multiple award-winning books and a job as instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Like Perdomo, Shake has been a spoken-word star, but he could leave home again, so to speak; chronicle his compelling story, culture, self; publish, maybe get that MFA Perdomo now has, and join the circuit of poets who are invited to speak and teach for serious money and to constant acclaim all over the country.

Shake, though, has anchored himself in his community. He stays on at Sweet Lorraine’s, maintaining a truly open mic. He has worked with students in alternative schools all over his city and in other cities. His desire for recognition burns, but the spirit of altruism emanates from him. He likes it when people on the street recognize him as “The Poet,” and especially when they say they can hear the truth in what he’s saying about New Orleans and the world. When I suggest that he’s put in his time as a sustainer of the local scene, and that he might now be able to move on, he replies, “I want to keep it going, and give people a place to tell their stories. I want to walk away saying I meant a great deal to the poetry community. I don’t want to say anybody ran me off.” Lately, some weeks at Sweet Lorraine’s, he’s found himself doing ten or eleven poems, basically a feature, to supplement the sparsely attended open mics, at a venue where, during the filming of When the Levees Broke, he would hold Spike Lee “at bay for hours,” just so the director could hear some of the other great talent. So Shake has done his community work, and has gotten back a lot of satisfaction and fellowship, along with a good deal of ingratitude and resentment. He might have to move on, and I ask whether or not these days he ever gets over to readings outside the spoken-word circuit. He says no, seeming to take a moment and wonder silently why he hasn’t. I ask if he thinks he ever will. He says maybe. The time might be now.

                                                         Shelton "Shakespear" Alexander at home

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Best American Poetry, Live in New York City

I’ve come here on foot, through the rush hour’s living crowd. Hundreds of thousands of feet headed in all directions, tens of thousands crossing the Brooklyn Bridge (which looms above Brooklyn Ferry), many more shuffling their way to the subway, which spews me out on Astor Place.

When I arrive on 12th Street, at the New School auditorium, I find a half-dozen people in the 400-seat space. As the event—and it does feel like an event, an important one-off, a poetry fireworks show—draws closer, more people enter. There are maybe 50 in the room as we come within fifteen minutes of start time.

The Tishman Auditorium (named for one of New York City’s lordly developers) has walls and a ceiling like the inside of a giant clamshell. A modest opera production could be staged here, and in fact the evening, at least at this early point, has the dignified and semi-formal aura of a contemporary opening night of, say, La Boheme. I suspect that some of the people I’m watching are some of tonight’s poets. I half-recognize a few faces from my Facebook connections. In this I am probably like many of the more obscure poets on hand tonight. I have these tenuous connections to people famous only to people who care more about the wider world of poetry than about their local poetry scenes. I wish I had an illustrated program.

Members of this group enter like anyone else and sit in the first three rows, upon which the polite audience haven’t dared infringe. Among them are Lucie Brock-Broido, Mark Doty, Cornelius Eady (a poet-cum-R & B singer, whom I’ve met through mutual poet acquaintances and brought to our college to perform), Yusef Komunyakaa, Cate Marvin, Eileen Myles, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Sean Thomas Dougherty. Sean is both a natural poet and a poet who identifies (much of the time) with the town where he lives. He is also a friend and poet whose work I’ve been lucky enough to publish in the journal I co-edit, but I haven’t told him I’m attending. These leading lights are his first community now, the national poetic prominenti, and I’m guessing that, although he might want to, tonight he won’t be able to share the time and thoughts with anyone outside that circle, as he might on a slow summer night in Erie.

The house lights have come up, and now the audience is a legitimate crowd. They embody the oddity of a major poetry event. There is buzz, but it is subdued. Some of the people in attendance are true fans; some are aspiring national poets; some are curious passersby; and some are students whom professors have asked or bribed to come. In all they number now around 150. Set in front of black drapes, stage left of a podium and facing it an oblique angle, are two rows of high-end white plastic chairs. The anthology editor, David Lehman—himself an accomplished poet, as if often the case with anthology editors—appears and walks just in front of the stage, where he talks with some of the contributors. Lehman is an avuncular man in a suit and tie. He wears black horn-rimmed glasses, and smiles continually. Most of the poets are glamorous, attractive, well-dressed: put together. They look as though they belong in the celebrity culture of twenty-first-century New York City. A few of them, like Cate Marvin, Mark Doty and D. Nurkse, live within New York’s ambit, but many actually spend most of their time in less grand towns where they teach creative writing. In those and other hamlets more remote, the poets who show up to read at local venues often appear to be in the midst of the struggles they portray in their poetry. Of course, I’m generalizing, but I wonder how well we’ll come to know these readers. Will this be a case, as it often is on local scenes, of the reading as an affordable middle-class evening out? As a chance to connect with other poets? For tonight’s performers it can’t be only these possibilities. Selection for this anthology can make a respected poet a national poet, one who is invited to read and teach for good money and on a regular basis; one whose poetry will be read all around the country and, in some cases, around the world.

It’s after 7 p. m., the official start time, and by now the auditorium is filled, and the poets have taken their places. A quick look at them on stage reveals that this is a thoroughly middle-aged bunch: the youngest, Valzhyna Mort, is 33; and the eldest, Komunyakaa, 67. Lehman takes the mic, jokes with the audience, and discusses the history of the anthology back to its inception in 1988, mocking the assertion that poetry is a dying art. The poets smile along, making unheard quips from their white chairs. Many know one another from AWP conferences and the national workshop and reading circuits. Tonight they will, no doubt, break bread, share wine, and enjoy their status. Any group of poets in their spot should. In his introduction Lehman discusses both the news of his guest editor (Terrence Hayes), who has just been named a MacArthur Fellow, and the changes in the anthology (greater diversity and taboo content) over the years. Without much further ado, he introduces the first poet in the alphabetical list.1

As the program unfolds, its nature surprises me. A number of poets manifest the impact both of spoken word and of local scenes on our national poetry. Joel Dias-Porter, who reminds others that he is a. k. a. DJ Renegade, recites from under a backward, angled baseball cap the epitome of a jazz poem called “Elegy Indigo.” Smooth all the way through. Natalie Diaz follows him to a chorus of cheers from the audience. She intones her poem “These Hands, If Not Gods” in a classic spoken-word style. In Kangol and bling, Sean Thomas Dougherty takes the mic like a warrior, and chants “The Blues is a Verb,” a poem about East Cleveland, in which the poet’s street sensibility, eye for the detail of local life, and working-class loyalties are on full display. Before his reading begins, Ross Gay passes out figs to everyone in the audience. They are good purple figs—At least mine was sweet—that the audience eats without any apparent hesitation. If they can’t trust a poet, who can they trust? Gay seems to enjoy interacting with the audience as much as he seems to enjoy reading his playful, weighty poem “To a Fig Tree on 9th and Christian.” In his comfort at the podium, and in his rapport with the audience, he resembles any confident regular at a local coffee house. Le Hinton’s “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat)” is the second poem of the night to draw inspiration from an obscure poet’s life, in this case from the life of Baltimore poet named Chris Toll. Patrick Rosal reads a great performance piece entitled “You Cannot Go to the God of Love with Your Two Legs,” and before he does gives a big shout-out to New Jersey.

Most of the other poets on the bill are polished performers. Major Jackson deftly deadpans “OK Cupid,” a masterpiece of associative thought and a paragon of the list form often heard on the local stage. Mark Doty recalls Woody Allen, if Woody Allen were genuinely genteel and wrote poetry. He opens with a shtick about the poets’ screwing up the alphabetical order of performance, and segues into his equally funny poem, “Deep Lane.” Cornelius Eady nearly whispers his poems, as though he is sharing secrets with the audience. He is urbane and witty, and his poem “Overturned” smolders. Cate Marvin is a different story. A master of wry anger, as in her poem for this occasion, “An Etiquette for Eyes,” at 45 she’s a young master, and is deferential to the company. Dressed in black, looking the part of a super-sophisticated hipster, she delivers with confidence. (About the poem itself, I notice that it rhymes “you” and “blue” a lot, and that it rests upon many of the same techniques (internal or buried rhyme, for example) that I hear from skilled but unsung poets around the country.) In her prefatory comments, Valzhyna Mort returns to the idea that reports of poetry’s death have been exaggerated. “Every poet,” she declares, “is a bit of a necrophiliac,” so she’s glad poetry is a dying art. The concern for poetry’s demise is, it should be understood, a product of critical discourse and not a reality on the ground. These poets must know this, because most of them, most poets acclaimed and obscure, spend a significant amount of time on that ground, performing for small crowds in small communities. Mort is a native of Belarus, writing remarkable poems in English. Her poem tonight, “Sylt I,” demonstrates her tremendous skill and humor, and, like a number of these other “best” poems, shows that sly humor has become a staple of contemporary American poetry. Eileen Myles breezes through “Paint Me a Penis,” a clever poem about gender and sexuality. She is as self-assured as any poet on stage, and maybe as any poet could be. And with nine black poets looking on, a white poet, Jon Sands, performs with the ease of a winning politician a nonce-form poem about race and racial injustice. He performs it with such calm power that the several black male poets on stage, themselves masters of calmly powerful poems about race, exchange quizzical looks as Sands walks off. The moment and the presence of nine black poets among the evening’s twenty-four are another reminder of how black American (not just African American, but also Caribbean American) culture, which dominates the spoken word and hip-hop landscape, has shaped contemporary American poetry.

When the reading ends and Lehman dispenses thanks, the poets remain on the proscenium, shooting photos of each, of the audience, of themselves. The house lights rise. Members of the audience approach the poet-celebrities. I approach the stage to congratulate Sean. He tells me how nervous, how terrified of performing for this occasion he was, until he realized that he actually knew a few of the poets and had even read with one or two before. He also tells me that he needs a smoke. It’s been a long day of teaching and now taking notes, so I follow him out, to the sidewalk. On 12th Street we chat with passing well-wishers, performers and some of Sean’s old friends. I was wrong. No matter how national they might be now, he and the other poets have time to talk. This is how readings usually work. They are performances, but also gatherings of people who know each other well enough to share passions, to talk shop, to catch up, and now and then to lay the groundwork of serious relationships.

Next month Sean will read on another national stage, at the Dodge Poetry Festival, but life is calling him from glory. His long-time girlfriend is ill, and their young daughters need him around. He’s announced this current swing as a farewell tour. And he’s thinking of quitting the pool hall he manages, going for a full-time job as an instructor to autistic children. He’ll gig, but never again on this scale. Mostly, he’ll write and stay put in Erie, home.

1 At this point, with apologies to Sean Thomas Dougherty and others who may have blogged about the event, I present a brief description of the poets and their performances, for those who may never have seen them. Others have and will no doubt present something like this list, but here I am merely following the draft of this essay I wrote on the spot. 

2At a reading I took part in in 2013, Donna Masini told the audience that she was revising the poem she was about to read at the bus stop on the way over. Comments like hers are commonplace at readings. At times they reflect a poet’s striving for perfection; at other times they suggest the kind of haphazard composition that can and does sometimes drive more seasoned poets away from open mics.

Sean Thomas Dougherty reading at the 2014 Best American Poetry Event
(Photo courtesy of Jordan Calhoun)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Holding It Down in New Orleans

African American Shakespear (Shake) is a regional slam champion, who has appeared on HBO's Def Poetry Jam, performing a poem about the aftermath of Katrina.

Katrina is a dividing line in Shake's life as poet. He started spitting (What many spoken-word poets call performing) five years before the storm hit, has hosted events for over a decade, and when the storm came he remained, "to hold it down." As I spoke with Shake I realized that poetry in America is mostly about the people who hold it down, whether that be as hosts of series; as poetry instructors to kids in first grade or juvi hall; as semi-anonymous small mag editors; or, yes, as "famous" poets who ply their trade at university auditoriums and in week-long workshops.

A fiction writer once said to me, "When you say famous poet, I don't know what you mean." This is what sets almost all poets apart. We may chase fame, but our fame is not fame as most people understand it. Fame for a poet is having a very few people in the world nod when they hear your name and maybe remember a few lines from something you've written. Fame may also come in the publication of a book, an enterprise that sometimes runs counter to the concerns of the poetry performer, who, maybe especially in New Orleans, lives for the instant connection with other people that almost every poet I've interviewed has identified as the ultimate goal of showing up on the scene.

Fame in the form of book publication (and prizes and accolades from other poets who publish books and win prizes) offers the chance to travel and connect, through performances and book signings, with more people than you could in your hometown. To hear the crowd punctuate your speech with laughter or "ummm"s. For the spoken-word poet who spends most of his time on the scene, holding it down, meeting and relating to other poets and audience members, the imperative to hone not only the poem, but to hone the performance of the memorized poem, may militate against the isolation any poet needs to produce a full-length manuscript. And then the publishers of spoken word-style poetry are relatively few, often poets themselves on a local scene, who decide to put together an anthology of poets they know from that scene. So when a poet like Shake does publish, the reach of that publication will not be anywhere near comparable to the reach of W. W. Norton or Pitt Poetry Series or Cooper Canyon book. His fame remains the griot's.

So here's Shake on a Tuesday night, hosting an open mic in the Seventh Ward, at Sweet Lorraine's Jazz Club, where he's held it down for over a decade. On Who Dat Poets, a clearinghouse site for spoken-word New Orleans, the listing for True Poetry Tuesday's says the open mic starts at eight. "Doors open at 7." It's 9:15. For two hours now I've been sitting at the bar next to a man whose attempts at jokes the fifty-something owner/bartender, Paul, ignores, while he tends to his cronies, a group of African American businessmen and civic leaders who have trickled in over the last two hours. They've been sitting in the otherwise empty club, across from the bar, sampling wine from the many bottles Paul's opened for them, and talking everything from the Federal Government shutdown to a possible trade of the Atlanta Falcon's aging tight end. They converse the way an outsider might expect a group of middle-aged black men from New Orleans to talk: sharply, jokingly, in the nettled satisfaction of one another's company. Among them is a judge whom Paul, with a smile, calls "Your Honor."

They've been joined lately by two young women, who may or may not be twenty-one. They've come for the open mic, though neither of them, I learn, has come to perform. They've moved to New Orleans from Alabama and Mississippi. They simply love poetry, the way it allows them to understand what other people are thinking. They've come to identify and to be moved by the flow, which begs the river metaphor.

Sweet Lorraine's is just blocks from said river, on the border of the Seventh Ward and the Faubourg Marigny/Bywater neighborhoods, on a strip that is the city's hub of spoken word venues. For years before Katrina, the Marigny had itself been a border neighborhood populated by the working class of New Orleans and the artists, asthetes and aspirants who could not afford the Quarter and anyway wanted to avoid its constant flood of tourists. Bywater, a. k. a. the Upper Ninth Ward, was, prior to Katrina, a working-class neighborhood bordering on some of the roughest neighborhoods in the city, what Shake would later describe as "the 'hood," meaning the Lower Ninth Ward and the various sweetly-named projects ("Desire," "Florida) to which it used to be home. It is now, among several neighborhoods that might pretend to the title, the hipster capital of New Orleans.

Two or three times, Paul, watching me wait, has stepped out onto St. Claude Avenue, to check for Shake, who might, he's told me, be hanging outside. As I'm about to give up, and embark on the long (and possibly hazardous) walk back through the Marigny and across the Quarter, Shake arrives, his Tone Loc-esque baritone filling the room. A chorus of "What up, Shake?"s greets him, as he slaps backs, claps shoulders and clasps hands with the assembled brethren. As Shake makes his way toward the stage, Paul superfluously informs me that there goes Shake. I leave my barstool, to introduce myself.

While the front of the club, including its storefront, is entirely non-descript, dominated by two giant flat-screen televisions, the back is a fully-equipped, even flashy, jazz club done up in blue, with a raised platform stage, and on it a shiny black drum set behind a transparent Lucite screen, flanked by a gleaming black piano, and fronted by four mic stands in a neat row across. On the ground are twenty glass-top bistro tables in two L-shaped rows filling the space in the front of the stage and then back into a semi-room invisible from the bar. On a good night, like a night of the Southern Fried Poetry Slam, the house must absolutely rock. (It strikes me that I met very few slam poets, or really any poets at all under forty during my time in the Bay Area.) It's here that Shake introduces himself and launches into an explanation of why the scene isn't what it used to be.

First, the hurricane scattered the old spoken-word guard, those who came up in the Nineties and early Aughts. In the storm's wake, in a time of gradual gentrification (read "whiteification") of many parts of the "chocolate city," open mics began popping up all over, splintering whatever coherent spoken-word scene remained. Shake calls many of the new crop, like the 2013 national champion New Orleans slam team, "collegiate." His description implies that they don't have the deep connection to the New Orleans he's never left. They may represent the city now, but they don't really know it.

Shake has promised to spit, but fifteen minutes later, when it's obvious no one else will be showing up, he suggests we step outside. "We" are seven, including two other spoken-word artists, Lost Soul and Numsko (who tells me he's sure that while I'll find lots of numbskulls out there, he'll be the one and only Numsko). There too is a musician named Mario, a diminutive young man who lives just next door; another quiet woman in her thirties, who, it turns out, is a spoken-word poet from Alexandria, Louisiana; and the two young ladies from Alabama and Mississippi, the taller of whom is a model and has begun talking with Shake about her own and his appearances in Hollywood films. (Shake appeared in the Spike Lee documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans, When the Levees Broke.)

Cars rush by on St. Claude. A man leads his young son by the hand toward Esplanade Avenue. A few others come and go on foot and on the ubiquitous bicycle. A few of the middle-aged men inside swing open the front door and walk to their cars. There's plenty of noise, but we are a circle, and Shake asks Lost Soul to kick it, which, as you can see below, we all wind up doing.

Click this link to see Shake, Numsko, and Lost Soul performing on St. Claude Avenue. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Hate the Fleur de Lis."

He spoke with the intensity of a bright, driven young man who had just lost his father a day or two before. He spoke about poetry and how poetry is a way we make ourselves who we want to be. And he spoke about the big lie: that New Orleans as we outsiders see it is an elaborate charade, perpetrated by a dominant (white) class and a subservient (black) class who have been acculturated to believe that they are less worthy of personhood than the people whose money and power depends upon their labor and creativity. The story of colonialism. An old story. At least a story many of us who non-New Orleanians would like to believe is an old story whose ending in the United States is close at hand. Kataalyst Alcindor believes otherwise.

Ehren "Kataalyst" Alcindor

Kataalyst is a twenty-six year-old poet, and in 2013 was host of the annual, traveling competition called the Southern Fried Poetry Slam, in his adopted city of New Orleans (He is originally from the cross-river factory town of Marrero, Louisiana). 

When we spoke about the Southern Fried Slam and about the New Orleans poetry scene more generally, the young poet talked about how difficult it was to put to good use the history that so many of this city live with every day in rituals and customs designed to keep the dead ever present, the Ifa' deities behind the saints forever marching in. It is a lived history, but one, as Kataalyst sees it, from which too few people draw the lessons that could help them reject the way things still are in New Orleans. The people of other Southern cities had done it, or at least tried to, but not the people of his city. New Orleans has remained locked inside the caste system in which white Krewes on Mardi Gras floats still hand strings of beads to outstretched second-line white hands, while they hurl the same beads and all manner of objects as hard as they can at the black faces in the same crowd. These Krewes (with a "K") are the brainchildren of the Klan and the descendants of those who branded runaway slaves (whose ears they also severed) with the fleur de lis, the symbol ubiquitous in the present-day Crescent City. "Hate the fleur de lis," he said. "Always hate the fleur de lis." 

When Kataalyst spoke of his people, he meant black people. When I asked him if black people were the only ones who made up genuine New Orleans, who could understand the need for mental liberation resulting from centuries of mental abuse and inculcated self-hatred and shame, he said with some hesitation that they might not be, but that, basically, he was talking about the black people, the African Americans of New Orleans. He did not, however, claim that only black poets could be legitimate New Orleans poets. His network of poets included many races, and was, at bottom, a league of the conscious.  


I believe that, even when they can't express themselves in unrehearsed language with the spontaneous insight, passion and precision that Kataalyst can, all poets or people who aspire to be poets understand the power of the simulacrum. The city, the performance, the poem, even the poet are simulacra--constructs, projections, fantasies. To recognize the simulacrum, the charade, the big lie, is the work of the poet, whose weapons are language, simulacra themselves, and the willingness to poke holes in the facade. To paraphrase Kataalyst, we have to speak something before it comes into being. I would add that speak it publicly we have to pretend that the world, the stage, the poem and we ourselves are something that we are not, but would like to be. To understand this imperative is to begin understanding what moves people toward poetry, poets toward other poets, and, may we hope, New Orleans and its people toward belief in a better simulacrum and a better reality.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Desperation on St. Charles Avenue

Another tropical storm skittered past New Orleans this weekend.

I felt its fingertips on my back as I walked down St. Charles Avenue past a plaque commemorating the erstwhile St. Charles Theater. Built in 1835, it was home to a grand opera. The first opera performed at the St. Charles was Bellini's Norma, a tale of desperation if ever there was one.

Poydras Street, looking toward the site of the St. Charles Theater, 
in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

There's a sweet desperation about New Orleans, the kind that leads lovers (all kinds of lovers) to sacrifice themselves for a lover, an ideal or an end to pain. It's the kind of desperation in which a poetic soul delights, a feeling that you are floating alone through life but will try to reach the world even if the world has not come looking for you. It's the kind of desire that pulls people to poetry, a desperate desire to express longings and hopes that could otherwise destroy them, that could fade away before brief lives conclude, and that will certainly fade away in the end. 

When Katrina hit and flooded eighty per cent of the city, the desperation that anyone with an eye and heart could see and feel in the vagrant clinging to his bottle in a doorway on Dauphine Street, or in the furious street tap of a little boy and a little girl from the other side of  Louis Armstrong Park for tourists' coins, or the tourists' hooch-fueled quest for exhilaration that could make them feel alive beyond their ordinary days, or the ecstatic, virtuosi performance of a jazz combo in an obscure bar on the far end of Bourbon Street, or the young poet's concentrated stare at her pad, on a bench in Washington Square off Esplanade--all of it came to a head in this city gone temporarily missing. 

In Hearing Sappho in New Orleans, her lyrical rumination on New Orleans poetry post-Katrina, Ruth Salvaggio proposes that 

Missing New Orleans means entering into desire. It means that we step into the long lyric call of poetry, because what goes missing is precisely what ignites the lyric voice of longing that keeps securing the bonds of our relations. The conundrum of desire is that what goes missing marks the limits of emptiness and fullness, severance and relation. We know what it means to miss New Orleans because we are creatures of longing.

I take the "we" to be all of us, anyone who has ever wanted to connect with someone else through the word, especially the word set to music as it has so often been in the Big Easy. 

Other cities coddle you. In San Francisco the warm sun soothes longing. On a recent trip there I could feel my worries, my longing, my desire to report on the emotional lives of human beings, evaporate in the gentle rays, wash away in the cool Pacific waves, be in fact pacified. The California sun can almost make you believe that you will never die. 

In New Orleans the sun drives you on, and even the remnant breezes of a merciful storm hit you with a thick sense that you've got to make some sort of noise before the heat or the river or the po' boys and pralines or the memories of pain put you under. You could be the frat boy crawling from pub to pub, the saxophonist from what used to be the Upper Ninth Ward, the jilted hipster dodging the unshaven men in dirty tee shirts and Saints caps on Canal, the family from Chicago in their Walmart-bought whites getting palms read in Jackson Squre, the hundred opposing intentions heading into the Quarter, the Creole aristocrat tossing pebbles into Bayou St. John, to count the decades gone, or the high school student riding the streetcar to the end of St. Charles, imagining something Uptown that once she discovers will make all this longing worthwhile. When you are here, you are desperate, and you find yourself inching toward desperate words. Poetry needs desperation, and desperation needs poetry. They live side by side here, as the city and its people will tell.