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Confessions of an American Poet

Slamming isn't my favorite kind of poetry reading; it privileges the long poem (because of its one poem limit) and leaves us hungry for greater intimacy with the poet. But I'll cop to slamming.
Ron Alcalay

Issue #8, October 1993

Slamming isn't my favorite kind of poetry reading; it privileges the long poem (because of its one poem limit) and leaves us hungry for greater intimacy with the poet. But I'll cop to slamming even, when someone like John Brady appears ready to criticize the whole venture — readings, poetry, popular art — from a theoretical position of dissatisfaction that fails to show any evidence of ever having attended (or participated in) one of these activities himself. This is not to say I believe Brady has never been to a reading or written a poem, but that his argument arrives from a purely polemical plane that dismisses popular art because it isn't more popular, because we aren't all participating in its production. Before engaging some of his more specious arguments, and getting into the real worth of readings, I'd like to say, in true slam fashion, 'Piss off, John.'

A reading's a place you can say such a thing. There are no poetry cops out there in the audience (any more), because we've won some important battles for our right to say whatever the hell we want. And who are 'we'? Brady would have us believe we are those with 'the gift,' or perhaps common people who 'are not personal friends of the muse.' Why must we be either? I've been to readings where even poets with 'day jobs' (horror of horrors) enthralled us with musings from their daily lives. And I've been to readings where famous poets with 'the gift' lulled me to sleep. This was a matter of taste, and I wouldn't condemn either, though I might prefer the place I can sit at a table drinking red wine, a place where the unexpected might happen, where you never know who's next onstage and their poem might make you laugh, their voice leave you teary-eyed, their presence — an image in your mind.

It's Sunday night. The week's been long, the weekend longer. On a whim, I call a friend and we're off to an open reading at the Paradise Lounge — one of those bars a lofty critic might think of as 'outside of socially sanctioned locations for the presentation of art;' but I know the poetry gig's been going for about five years there, and the bar does so well hosting local musicians that Robin, the owner (who we meet again on the stairs), could expand from a little lounge where the Dinos played Thursdays to three stages, three bars and a poolhall. In bookstores, bars, or cafes it's all sanctioned unless someone takes their clothes off and someone else complains. Here, there's still no cover on Sunday night; and when we enter the crowded upstairs room, it's darker than the street outside, except for a spot onstage where a man and his voice recite brilliant chains of poetry recounting a childhood in the L.A. barrio; and each chain begins 'I am eight years old and...' The man's forehead is a map of dry grass paths where lizards still run between the dead, drunk or degraded lives he saw there.

The poet may not be an 'artistic genius' or even 'professionally educated,' but he contributed to American culture that night, in that room, for that audience; and we clapped because we appreciated his vision, his voice. Sure, he's no Michael Critchton, and he doesn't run a studio, but I didn't choose to see Jurassic Park that night, and (dare I say it?), I haven't seen it at all. Not that I'm opposed to movies — I love them — but sometimes I'd rather listen to a real human being telling me about lizards than watch giant real-looking lizards eat real-looking actors onscreen. If Brady is so down on commodified art, why doesn't he go after seven dollar movies, or commercial-laced television? I don't buy the model that we're all passive consumers with no power to 'shape the cultural context which frames [our] everyday lives.' Even if we buy (which is an activity), the shaping power of art has a lot to do with how we receive it, understand or interpret it — how we contextualize our purchases. Finally, we can create, and share these works with others around us; this is the context that we have the most power to influence. If exclusion from artistic production is a bad thing, why criticize venues whose sole adjective is 'Open'?

Next up is Bruce Isaacson. He's a local, been reading for seven years that I know, since the vagabond days of Circle Arts, when we'd share the stage with folk musicians on Tuesday nights behind the Albion, or in the lower Haight — wherever they hadn't lost their liquor license. He's slowed down, or just tired, but he still gives away copies of his poems for free. 'Bling ding,' another poet awakens the room, and were off into catalogues of lives, like Whitman's, and I wonder, 'Do they shrink, or do they revive and remember?' The different ethnicities, hungers, prostitutes — bringing them all to our awareness — is it postmodern, or simply subjective? The poet's wandering consciousness: transcendental identifications with freeway overpasses.

Another poet, raggety beard. His poem is called, 'Homeless by Choice' and he embodies the images. No need to be someone else, he's homeless by choice and he's a poet by choice; we're listening, even when he stumbles over words, with him in a way we might not be on the street.

A bald black woman follows a soft-spoken black man. She knows Whitman and pays homage to Ginsberg. She says, 'Civil rights is my girlfriend's name.'

And then many moments later, we're in South America, hearing the story of a massacred native people. Their counting system said 'many' past ten, and now when the survivors answer questions about numbers killed, they say, knowing the meaning well: 'many.'

Readings may not always leave me happy, but they usually satisfy. In them I find a microcosm of the world's concerns — inspired, distilled and breathed out, in irony, celebration or pain, and sometimes in an ironic celebration of pain. The poems might portray local people (a preacher and his congregation of pigeons); or they may be political (caged crack rats: 'one dead end is as good as the next'). They can be personal (memories of 'The Stud'); or meditative (ruminations on suicide by speeding). The poets inform; they educate, but mostly they entertain. Readings are ritual entertainment, disengaging us from mainstream media, or from our routinized lives, bringing strangers together to listen to each other. In this, readings are completely human. They are free, and open to everyone who cares to read or listen. You don't even need to order a drink. What good does it do John Brady to 'locat[e] the progressive elements' of the experience, then despair when he gets outside because after all, we're still 'surrounded by a powerful and regressive society'? He might as well criticize and oasis for being in the desert. Besides, I'm not convinced the world is regressive; there are many progressive forces. Healing the world is a challenge; don't give up because the charge isn't done.

I'm up. Number seventeen on the sign-up list. I finish off the red wine, spilling a little on my beard. Then I'm in the glare. Shadows shuffle. I sure prefer cafes to this place, I think, but then I'm reading a poem and the room's full of my voice. The poem's short; my turn's over. Some people clap, my friend pats me on the back.

I haven't changed the world, or sparked the revolution. The poem didn't extend any 'coherent political project.' If this is what Brady wants, he won't find it at an open mike. I'm not against using art as a hammer to shape the world, but would John Brady melt all the different tools to create a giant revolutionary hammer? Who would fashion it? Who would wield it? I'm not handing my hammer or pen or garden hoe to anyone who channel the freedom to use it, however and in whatever bar or cafe I choose — among friends or strangers, to a crowd of fifty or a sleeping man and some empty mugs. I cherish the right to rant loudly in the world, or pronounce my pentameter in public. Poets have led revolutions; they lead countries. When a populace is alive to the concerns of its age, poetry flourishes unexpectedly, like those brilliant sunflowers Allen Ginsberg planted years ago, when the world also seemed to many interminably grey.

Ron Alcalay is a graduate student studying American literature and film. He can be reached through e-mail at the following Internet address:

Copyright © Ron Alcalay. All rights reserved.