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Going Public

It's open mic poetry night, and all the writers sit with their words clenched between anxious fists, waiting for their turn to be on stage.

Kim Nicolini

Issue #62, December 2002


You are looking at a young woman. The bar is dark and everyone is holding a cigarette but not smoking it. The butts just smolder and choke the air. The woman is on stage, bone thin, black tank top with two black bra straps peaking out, jeans pulled low, belly button staring at you. And the woman, eyes thick with black mascara, throws words like objects. You catch them in your ears and taste them in your mouth. Words like suck, fuck, cum, cunt, cock. They are delicious and dirty. They are free for the price of a cup of coffee or a draft beer. And you eat them like nothing you ever tasted before, licking your lips after each bite.

It's open mic poetry night, and all the writers sit with their words clenched between anxious fists, waiting for their turn to be on stage, to deliver their message and throw their words out like so much birdseed. Every Sunday the woman comes to the bar and tosses her words, and every Sunday the audience comes for more. They are starving for her stories, crave them like a new drug or a shot of 100 proof. The minute details of a teenage girl selling her adolescent ass for ten, twenty or, if she's lucky, a hundred bucks a pop. She outlines her history in all its non-glory: the sticky mess, the rolls of flesh, the car seats, motels, needles and bruises. At the end of each night, the people want to talk to her, touch her.

Her mouth moves, but she doesn't hear or remember the words. She belts down another Rolling Rock. Someone's hand is on her shoulder, but she can't feel a thing. She is no longer human, she is a page in a book, a series of typed words, a smear of paint resembling a woman on the cover of her Xerox-copied chapbook. She is the dead moth under glass, the split cell under the microscope. And that is just what she wants to be.

Two hours before

I'm standing in front of the mirror practicing. At this point, I've only had one or two beers, and I'm repeating the lines about fucking a fat man in a VW by the railroad tracks for the twentieth time in as many minutes. You see, I need to master the perfect delivery, the cross between enticing and repulsive. I need to make the audience feel it so I don't have to anymore. And that takes a lot of practice.

Each time I repeat the lines they become more removed from me. By the time I make it to the stage, the words are nothing but air. I have exorcised this part of my history, given it to the audience. It's theirs now, and they can do what they want with it. As long as they don't give it back to me.

Three years before

They wheeled me into emergency. I'd stopped breathing. Overdose of sleeping pills. Yes, it was intentional. Days later, I sat in the UC Berkeley student health center for the infections I had in my arms from the multiple IVs used to keep me alive. "What happened to you?" asked the nurse. I explained how I almost died, how I wanted to, but that now I was back. She walked me over to Student Mental Health and sat me down with an LCSW — my first and only effective therapist. I was allowed twenty sessions as a student. I went to all twenty, and wrote some of the best poetry I have ever written, and, even more remarkably, managed to stay sober the entire time. I told her about my childhood. I told her about my teenage years in the sex industry. I told her lots of things. I talked, and talked, and talked. Her overall assessment: I was much too sexually objectified, starting as a small child and continuing on into the present. I had no idea.

But then my 20 sessions were up, and my stories ended. I lost my audience, and I got drunk. Real drunk. And I continued to get drunk for the next ten years.


Voyeurism Picture! After my therapy ended and I finished college, I decided to "go public" with my poetry, doing the open mic circuit in San Francisco which was so popular in the 1990's. I started with a couple of short poems about my life on the streets as a teenager, and the audience gobbled them up. I decided to get real specific. I took the ugliest events and put them to paper, in all their tedious detail. It was like dissecting my past piece by piece. I'd remove a day, slice it out, divide it into its component parts, and present it to the public. "Take one day at a time," they say in the twelve-step system. But I was creating my own therapeutic environment by "removing one day at a time" from my past. I took the details of my life: incest, sex industry, drugs, pimps, blood and death and I performed them over and over again, I freed myself from the burden of my past. It was my own kind of talk therapy. I talked and talked and talked to a captive audience. I even acted out my past physically. I prepared to go on stage like I was preparing to go out on the streets and put myself up for sale. The ritual was the same: pick out the right clothes, put on the right make-up, numb myself sufficiently with substance of choice, then hang myself up for display. And the people came, and always wanted more.

I lured them with the sexy details. I was their window, and they wanted to see inside me. But for all the sex and porn-pleasure, I always made sure the final stamp was ugly, leaving the audience repulsed and responsible. I would leave my life dirty in their hands, like a fresh turd that they couldn't wash off. And every time they carried that fistful of dirt out with them, I could feel the weight of my past lifting, just a little bit, off of me. This went on for years. Writing the words, belting them out, washing them down, sleeping it off. Until gradually, my life became just that: words, a big wad of trash I could ball up and throw away. It was an object to throw at people, but not my life.

There was so much freedom and safety in my graphic public display. By making my dirty life so public and putting all my secrets on the surface, I preserved my true privacy, the real me, the me in the present. People so fetishized my past, that my present was invisible. I kept it safe under cover. Likewise, no one would ever dig up the dirt on me and use it against me. I excavated it myself and put it on public display.

The only problem was that, while I freed myself from my past by performing it, the people who surrounded me daily would always see me through that dirty window as the performer, as the ex-whore. Part of the burden of playing this role was keeping up the physical presence to make it believable and enticing. I was caught in the image-trap: stay beautiful, hip, and cutting edge; stay hard, cold, hurt and angry. This is what was expected regardless of where I was. The burden of performing was so great, that I would see people I recognized, and I would quickly turn and hide, cross the street, do anything to avoid them. Maybe I just wanted to have a moment of normal life, to shop for a loaf of bread, smile or hug my boyfriend.

In 1998, I began the current chapter of my life: Kim the Mother, when I got pregnant with my daughter. But even this beautiful and huge change in my life was not uninfluenced by my past and the image I created of myself for public consumption. I remember walking through the office one day, when one of my co-workers who knew my poetry, my performance persona and my past said, "Feeling a little tired today, Kim?" I told him that, yes, I was tired and that I was pregnant. He said,""Oh, that's it! I didn't want to say anything, but I noticed you were getting kind of fat." He was so relieved that my appearance could be explained rationally" — pregnancy — and that his conception of me as a hard fashion diva with a torrid past could stay intact. His relief was visibly noticeable: how glad he was that the new me was obviously just a temporary condition.


I'm talking to a friend coming out of a self-destructive B&D relationship. She's worried that I'll think less of her as a person. Absolutely not. She goes to therapy once a week, but I tell her that sometimes for people who have had severe experiences, talking things out in therapy is simply not enough. We need to act out our past, physically expel it from our lives. I acted mine out on stage. I made my past into an object so solid I could separate it from me like a Siamese twin. She's acting hers out in bed. When she's done, she'll be a stronger person for it. She'll know a lot more about herself, and she'll be free of a lot of her demons.

I was having dinner with a couple of other friends here in Tucson recently. One has been in intense psycho-therapy for over 20 years, talking out her past. She says she has to have somewhere to put it, other than her home, so she leaves it with her therapist instead of her husband and kids. I told her that I leave mine in the garage, in the boxes and boxes of poetry, notebooks, sketchbooks, and paintings that I can't bear to look at. My partner brought a box in the house the other day and, with excitement, announced that he had found some of my old poetry notebooks, as if I would be glad to see them. I felt like throwing up, and told him to put them back in the garage and make sure the box is closed, taped shut.


Tucson, Arizona. It's hot. You're sitting by the pool at the Jewish Community Center. You see a woman: tall, strong, tattoos emblazoned on her hip, butt, ankle, chest.You're pretty sure she is thirty-something. She walks across the deck, empowered in her flesh. Her thighs shake ever so slightly with each step, and her tummy bulges where it once housed her child. She wears her body like a suit of golden armour, confident and proud. She bends down scoops up her three year old daughter and plops into the pool with a splash. The woman's face is all smiles and love, and you marvel at her strength.

I smile back at you because I can do that now. Smile. I live in a new place, with a new life. Sure, I still talk about my old life. I'm writing about it now. But it's far away from the real me, the me in the present. I'll be forty years old in less than a week. My tattoos are twenty-five years old. People frequently ask me if I regret having my tattoos. I always answer, "Never." They are as much a part of me as the hair on my arms and the lashes on my eyes. I am the complete history of me, and my tattoos remind me of that everyday. And, no, those I will not keep boxed up in the garage.

Kim Nicolini is a full-time working mother, artist, and movie-lover living in Tucson, Arizona, as well as a longtime member of the Bad Subjects editorial collective.

Copyright © 2002 by Kim Nicolini. All rights reserved.