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“Twenty f***ing minutes,” she says.
Then she’s off.
I crashed down into the swell a few months ago
And I’m waiting at the bottom with a wee-waking lantern
Making bread out of thought and drinking trickling rocky rainwater.
And I heard you slide down behind me but your efforts were slower.
Sometimes I see those big bright sneakers above me in the dark.
Sometimes you shout down jokes that get lost in their own echoes,
And I hope you make your way.
She speaks matter-of-factly, her voice turning down at the end of each phrase. The words flow smoothly, running on and on like a gushing mountain stream. The background cacophony of jingling keys, creaking chairs, cracking knuckles, shuffling feet, and clinking glasses fades to attentive silence.
And I faintly recall the slow sacrifice of my spirit in those years,
The deprivation of my head into complacence and my body into a tool.
Were I foolish enough to advise you, I’d say,
“Cocks are often compared to guns but c***s aren’t made to be weapons,
And you could be a harbor but instead are Pearl Harbor.
Choose the former, love.
Don’t cover your narrow chest with scar tissue by hurling yourself into the line of shrapnel again
Her name is Ellen Herget. She wears a striped black and white shirt and comfortable jeans with wide pockets. Her long red hair hangs over her shoulders and black Tiffany glasses perch daintily on the tip of her nose. She is twenty-four. She graduated with a degree in anthropology two years ago and refers to humans as “hairless pink animals.” She supports herself by nannying children.
And she happens to be one of those crazy, artsy, eccentric people who call themselves poets. You know the type: People who have degrees in philosophy and psychology and anthropology they haven’t used since graduating. People who play in folk duos and gypsy-punk bands called “The Skekses” and “O Fool” and “Slaughterhouse-Six.” People who say things like “spoken – a word implicit” and “thoughts of closeness risen from solitude.” People who write and edit literary magazines with names like “Bad Shoe,” “Insects Are People Too,” “Pussy Poetry,” and “Muse of Fire.”
They are artists, photographers, musicians, writers, editors, lovers, family members, friends, but, above all else, they are poets. They work as nannies and grocery-baggers and bank tellers, wiling away the daylight hours beneath the watchful gazes of their anal-retentive supervisors. At the end of each day, they rush home to scribble the outpouring of their souls in long, scrambled free verse. And every few weeks, or months, or sometimes years, they come out of hiding and present the world with a taste of their labors.
My mother and I arrived at Duff’s Bar half an hour ago, at about seven-thirty. As soon as we stepped inside, a hot wave of scent washed over us. Lingering cigarette smoke, spilled beer, and stale sweat swiftly replaced the crisp autumn air, like a blanket thrown over an air vent. A man with a scruffy beard and a stained orange shirt greeted us at the door, shuffling a wad of wilted George Washingtons in his hands.
“This is where the poetry reading is, right?” my mother asked tentatively.
“Yesh. That’sh three dollarsh each pleash,” he mumbled into his beard. We forked over the money and he let us pass. We now sit at one of the tables cramped into the back. A man a few tables over picks at a plate of greasy chicken fingers and salt-encrusted French fries, comestible precursors to congestive heart failure. People sip from sweaty glasses of amber beer and hard apple cider. They loll in their seats, their legs propped in front of them, their shoulder blades supported by the chair backs. Oddly shaped mirrors hang along the walls, like a Western permutation of Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors. The floor is made of creaking, vintage wood scuffed lustrously smooth by a thousand pairs of shoes, and in the far wall a big stained glass window looks out onto the street, the bar’s name spelled out in sickly yellow letters: “DUFF’S.”
And so, my mother and I find ourselves thrown into the “poetry reading” culture. Poetry readings. They are casual, unfussy affairs that take place in cafes and bookstores, bars and basements, amphitheaters and college auditoriums. They are held as a way of exposing the community to local artists and poets, of getting poets’ names out into the general public. As Herget so bluntly stated at the beginning of the night, poets are given twenty minutes to read or say whatever they want. For twenty short minutes, the mic is theirs. Sometimes readings are held as fundraisers, as in the case of poet Matthieu Paul, who found himself in the ICU at St. John’s Hospital last summer after falling off a three-story building. Paul’s fellow poets promptly held a poetry reading to raise money to cover his medical expenses.
Poetry readings have decreased in popularity over the years, their prevalence taking a sharp dip in the twentieth century with the inception of television and radio. As people turn more and more to alternate forms of entertainment, poetry readings have become “less a part of the mainstream pop culture” and more an activity associated with the “literary fringe.” This decline is evident in the audience-size at Duff’s: barely twelve or fifteen people attend.
Nevertheless, poetry readings remain fairly popular in cities and college towns. They are not things to be measured in statistical data, events funded by major corporations and tracked in detailed polls and surveys. Rather, they are community-driven, drawing their strength straight from the pulsing heart of the populace.
“They [poetry readings] always make me feel really open-minded,” says one young woman, an aspiring author working on her first novel. “I always come to these things because I feel like they somehow inspire creativity, you know? Just listening to the poetry . . . It’s really stimulating.”
Herget reads first. She stands before the audience, her shoulders hunched in, reading as if in a hurry, the words falling over one another in rapid succession. She is renowned among the local poetry community for her use of extended metaphor. She also happens to be notorious for her profanity. Profanity seems to be part and parcel of the poet’s art. It provides an element of shock, a lewd word disrupting the flow of delicately dancing verse. It jerks the listener back to attention like the whiplash of a sudden car accident. It allows the poetry to be unfiltered and raw, human emotion compacted into its most carnal form.
The poems are often brief, spur-of-the-moment epiphanies scribbled onto spare scraps of paper. In one instance, one poet reads four short lines jotted onto the back of a receipt from a gift shop in Windsor, Connecticut:
Nobody believes in God,
Found someone else to blame.
Some generations live through war,
We live through divorce.
“They [the poems] probably aren’t that good,” Herget says modestly. “But they all need to be read sooner or later.”
Although all the poets are good, my favorite poet of the night is the final one: Katerina Canyon. Her hair hangs in stiff little dreadlocks, like fuzzy brown caterpillars, that frame the warm, chocolate brown of her skin. She wears an orange and yellow scarf over her knitted white shawl. She once worked fulltime as a poet. Now she works as a paralegal for PriceGrabber.com in order to put her oldest son through film editing school in Hollywood. “Twenty-five grand a semester, he says. Twenty-five grand! And I say, ‘Hon, what I make as a poet just ain’t gonna work.’”
But for a while, Canyon did manage to support her family solely on her income as a poet. It wasn’t the most lucrative occupation, but she made it work. “No one could imagine me working fulltime as a poet,” Canyon says. “People used to ask me what I do, and when I said I worked as a poet, they’d ask, ‘So how do you support yourself?’ I just told you people! Poetry! I went to these poetry readings to get my name out there and it ended up with my being named Poet Laureate of Sunland-Tujunga [where she lived in Los Angeles].”
Canyon doesn’t rush the words. She is calm, confident, the words flowing smooth and sweet as honey. When you read poetry alone, “in your head,” as the phrase goes, the words are the focus. In a poetry reading, however, the delivery is as essential as the content. Katerina Canyon has mastered her delivery. In addition, she writes of things from her own past with a beauty and poignancy that comes only with first-hand experience: her abusive father, the loving mother prematurely stolen away by breast cancer, racism exhibited against her because of the color of her skin, the deep pride she feels at the color of this same skin.
Ultimately, poetry embodies an outpouring of human spirit concentrated into a handful of powerful words. Its origins date back to ancient Mesopotamia millennia ago, and it has somehow managed to continue on, alive and well, to this day. Although community poetry readings may be a dying art, eclipsed by the flashing megapixels our computer and TV screens, one thing is certain: As long as there are still poets, there will always be poetry readings.