Blogging offers a forum for musing about the craft of writing and the events that surround us in a very frustrating and yet exciting time, as we are faced with many issues similar to those of the 1960s: A government that lies to us, neo-colonial incursions into other countries, repression of ideas and serious threats to the well-being of the human race, while offering bread and circuses at home in the form of rampant materialism. A groundswell of protests against authority again reflect the response that was given by youth in the 1960s. Writing once again can explore those moods and present an alternative.
“The more energy you give the poets, the more they give back to you!”
The Starry Plough, 3101 Shattuck Avenue, looked decorated by the Irish Republican Army: flags, posters of griffins, Che Guevara, Guiness ale, and in faux Celtic script, “No revolutionary movement is complete without its poets.”
A workshop led by Jaz Sufi started the evening. “If you write, you have already won.” One participant wrote his poem on the spot!
“Sign-up closes when I stop counting 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – sprint!”
White guy in the spotlight: “Chattering in my head gets pretty loud, but the radio gets louder.”
“This loud turns the highway into a black scream.”
Black with rasta braids: “Three blocks down from the crack house. We’d punch back at everything without running home.”
“When the crying’s done there’s no weeping in my tree house.”
The raucous nightclub filled with 110-plus students and twenty-somethings, a few older, almost half male, one third people of color. “Berzerkley SLAM” in crazy gold letters across dark green curtains.
White blonde: “To the men and women with whom I have slept, I call my mental health a work-in-progress.”
“I’ve gotten so good at the word ‘yes.’ By twenty my ‘yes’ was as slobbery and wet as my favorite dog’s tongue.”
Open-and-shut demonstrations of the truism, “Poetry is a vehicle for consciousness.” Youth working out issues with family, relationships, politics, race, history, identity, gender. Each poet got three minutes or points were subtracted.
Another white woman, from a smart phone: “He’s my adrenaline, my steroids, my methamphetamine. I’m like a cat on steroids.”
“He says he can read me, but he’s reading his OCD!”
White woman, from memory: “A chest overflowing with feelings we never cleaned out.”
“Darker than the corners of my N.Y. City apartment.”
Jaz Sufi read the cards held up around the room, “I have a 6, a 6.2, 7.0, 7.0, 8.7.” She pushed up her pink sunglasses and explained, “Judges take art and put a number on it.” With what qualifications? “Who would like to be a judge? Let me rephrase. Who would like a free drink?”
The point is not the points, the point is the poetry.
AmerIndian woman: “Burn the retinas of the reservations of my mind.”
“When I first opened your book, a tomahawk hit my hand.”
Young black man: “When my father says ‘bitch’ he means everything that’s tried to destroy him.”
“Either heal or die. If he windmilled his arms hard enough….”
The highest-scoring poets go to the second round and, close to midnight, the winner pockets some cash.
“If you don’t cheer for good poetry, I will read you some bad poetry!” Jaz Sufi screamed. “Give it up for the poets! These poets pour out their hearts for you!”
Will the same happen next week? Go to berkeleypoetryslam.wordpress.com and make a guess.
(This entry originally appeared as a column in the Berkeley Times June 25 2015 print edition.)
“We wander the roof of hell, choosing blossoms.” — Issa
No way does this bookstore resemble hell! Mrs. Dalloway’s, 2950 College Avenue. is clean, attractive, with elegant script along the wall: “Mrs. Dalloway decided to pick her own flowers.”
These one-liners from Jane Hirshfield, like the quote from Issa, suggest how poetry awakens our lives.
“Beauty unbuckles pain’s armoring.”
“Poetry startles its reader out of the general trance.”
“Waking with the awareness that the future cannot be predicted.”
Hirshfield means we can’t predict the next second, and that means your life. This homily is a profundity, rarely noticed because it’s omnipresent.
Hirshfield revealed that Plato thought poetry “escapist.” Her audience though, a hundred-and-thirty-plus people, was in rapt attention. Most were well-to-do, half were gray, balding, or elderly, with a number of twenty- and thirty-somethings, no Latins that I could discern, and no African-Americans.
“There were times my life and I made jokes together…
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off our clothes on
our tongues from”
Hirshfield was intent on charming her audience. But remember, the most enlightened person may appear the most ordinary. Hirshfield did appear ordinary: matronly, with hair carefully done up, a red and brown scarf.
She read a poem-conversation between herself and her skeleton.
“When I danced,
When you broke,
…What did I know of your days,
You who held me all your life
in your hands
as a new mother holds
her own unblanketed child,
not thinking at all.”
Hirshfield is a dedicated Buddhist and this went unmentioned, not in her patter, not in her book promotion. Has she abandoned her practice? I think not. She might wish her poems be appreciated without our knowing where they come from. Without a label. Hirshfield forewent questions and answers so we couldn’t ask.
I did ask people what they appreciate. “Simplicity.” “Beautiful still lifes.” “Olives and oranges.” “Mindful playfulness.”
All true. But mainly Hirshfield presents two things: an awakened consciousness and uber-accurate, unfleshed bits of life.
“I wake early,
make two cups of coffee,
think, go back to sleep,
wake again, think,
drink the other.”
How many years meditating before, avoiding the day’s concerns, one can write so exactly what is? Twenty years, I’d guess.
“This poem is haunted from the edges by the fact that we are still at war.”
We live on the roof of hell, and Hirshfield shows us blossoms.
Upper-middle class white America needs these bits of ordinary life, bits that are somehow enough, and comforting. Will the next reading be as reassuring? Find out at www.mrsdalloways.com.
(This entry originally appeared as a column in the Berkeley Times May 21 2015 print edition.)
Your first time at Nick’s, 3218 Adeline Street near Alcatraz? Surely the wrong place, noisy, thirty-something, high-energy party atmosphere. Two shelves of bottles behind a thirty-foot bar, a long saw blade on the wall, guys in denim jostling about the OK Corral.
“Not a bar,” says the woman on an adjacent stool. “It’s a lounge.”
The fifty-plus people, including a few Blacks, are utterly quiet when the reading starts. Three minutes for each poet, on the theme of “Bad Romance.”
“There was a mess inside her, a mess I hadn’t made and couldn’t clean up.”
“Gouge guilt’s baby blues right out of his skull.”
“She was gone and all I could smell was burning.”
“Oh, man!” yells a poet after three minutes. Red and blue disco lights rotate around the walls, getting brighter, a gentle reminder that time is up.
“I live to think of failure, heartbreak, disenchantment as a group effort, a team sport.”
“You could break a thousand eggs and never find a chicken.”
“My life falls like a pale warm pair of panties to the floor.”
The tone ranges from earnest to sarcastic, from slapstick to disgusted. One guy walks into the audience, bends over and bellows his angst. Another poet has the audience shout, “Love!” every time she uses the word. For another we intone, “Nothing I want. Nothing I want” like a chorus.
“There’s beauty in imagining your absence.”
“Feign interest beyond indiscriminate hunger.”
“Held her against him with such ferociousness she thought he would never let go.”
It gets raunchier. Sex “a sticky fraud perpetuated by the prophylactic industry.” If language makes you uneasy, better step outside.
“Bad Romance” in such quantity creates a verbal Rorschach. A template calling up flaws and strengths of my relationships, the current one especially. Will I meditate, in this one evening, on every relationship in my life? But it’s not all negative.
“That love is mine! I take it back.”
“‘Going back to her place,’ which are my favorite five words.”
“No intention of riding off meekly into my sunset years.”
The free, accepting ambiance reflects the generosity of hosts Hollie Hardy and Tomas Moniz. Twenty-somethings hanging at the rear come to the mic, too, amid shrieks of approval. One poet comments, “Intelligibility doesn’t matter so much as good feeling. You get good feeling back.”
Two hours ago a solid-looking fellow with a full beard greeted a newcomer, “Dude, you’re a top-tier poet. And you show up at the open mics?”
“I get appreciated here.”
Next month at Nick’s – always 7 to 9:30pm the last Saturday – what topic will consume us? Go to http://www.holliehardy.com/readings—events.html or “Saturday Night Special” on Facebook and find out.
(This entry originally appeared as a column in the Berkeley Times March 19 2015 print edition.)