Every Thursday night, at Enliten Bakery in Provo, there’s a poetry slam. Called Speak Your Mind, it’s an open mic opportunity to read, recite or free-style poetry. Last night, Speak Your Mind’s
head guru, poet-in-chief, grand doyenne, Marianne Hales Harding (a good friend of many years’ standing) invited me to be the featured writer. I figured, anything to help make Provo cooler. I had a ball.
I don’t know how many people eventually showed up–maybe 50. Of those who did come, maybe 15 or so actually read/performed. Many were younger folks, but there were a few people closer to my age, including some very accomplished poets. A young woman showed up for the first time, and I thought her poems (she read, I think, two) were splendid. A young girl wrote with aching honesty about relationships and failures and how hard it can be just to break through all the barriers we humans put up. A young guy wrote with ferocity and courage and passion about dualities and dualisms now and in the past. Marianne recited a terrific poem about tampons. And we snapped our fingers (and clapped some too), and the whole thing was great fun.
Enliten Bakery makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches on the planet. And it’s management is super-cool, as good as their food. They’ve agreed to a ‘no censorship’ policy, and I think that’s one of the things that made the night work so well. If a poet’s muse requires the occasional dropping of an F-bomb or two, so be it–writers have to feel able to express any thought, any emotion, any sentiment, and that means using any language suited to the work. And especially when you’re freestyling. Especially then.
I was the ‘featured writer,’ which meant I got to go first, a scary prospect. And I am most emphatically not a poet. I am a playwright first, an essayist/blogger second, a critic third, and other kinds of writing are way down the list. I’ve written a novel, I’ve written short stories, I’ve written some pretty terrible poetry, but mostly, I’m a character/setting/conflict guy.
So I imagined a short scene, a date, in which the guy has asked the girl, for their second date, to read a book before-hand, to give the date some focus. Which she has agreed to, for reasons known only to herself. The book he gives her is one that, he says, is the most important book in the world to him, the book that defines him as nothing else on earth defines him, and it’s not that she has to like it, he’s fine if she doesn’t like it, but she does need to engage with it. Please? And the book is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Which she totally hates. She’s a feminist; it’s a rape-y book, it’s contemptible. It’s the worst book ever written. Mein Kampf, he counters? It’s the second worst book ever written, she replies.
So driving over to the event, I thought about that situation, and these two people, and I thought I’d freestyle a dialogue, me playing both characters, just to see what happened. An approximation of my own writing method, maybe. Anyway, I did it. Driving in, the sun was low enough that I needed my sunglasses, and I figured, hey, poetry slam, so I kept ‘em on. And my wife is out of town, so I haven’t shaved since Monday. All part of the look.
It went okay. I thought the scene had a strong opening, a pretty solid closing, lagged a bit in the middle. I think I’m going to actually write it, see if it fits into something else I’m working on. And then I figured, what the heck, it’s a poetry slam, so I freestyled a second piece, a poem this time. A few weeks ago, I bought a new chair, a recliner, the single most comfortable piece of furniture I have ever owned. So I called the poem “Recliner porn,” and it went okay, got some laughs, though it sort of fizzled at the end. So I sat down to enjoy everyone else’s poetry.
And half-way through, I realized I had another poem I needed to write and recite that night. I’ve been angry for days, and anger is important, always write when angry, do not lose that energy. So I grabbed a pen and a napkin, and wrote it, and Marianne slotted me in again at the end. Here it is. I call it: Detritus.
What are we doing?
What are we doing?
I see them, red faced white women faces like harpies and gorgons and Scylla and Charybdis, nightmare faces dredged from the depths of a shared mythos, screaming, like voices from the past (screaming ‘nigger nigger nigger’ at 9 girls in Little Rock the year after I was born), now, today, screaming ‘go away.’ ‘Return to sender.’ ‘We do not want your diseases’ (ebola smallpox dengue fever none of them found in Honduras) at a yellow bus filled with brown-skinned children.
60 kids wrapped in a quilt and tied to the roof of a train at a Texican border saying help us help us help us please.
We need Pampers
diaper rash creme
fleeing murder and raped moms and sisters families blown apart. Rubble and garbage and gnawing empty bellies
Because cities implode under the weight of violence
Because America’s hedgefund managers + dentists + CPAs + corporate attorneys + insurance adjusters + assistant managers + executive vice-presidents + used car dealers + realtors + computer programmers + ad execs + personal trainers
candy with which to stuff their aquiline noses
and demand creates supply
and illegality restricts supply
and corporations we call ‘cartels’
and small businesses we call ‘gangs’
and salesman we call ‘dealers’
feed that need feed that need feed that need
and the kids wrapped in quilts are collateral damage we’d just as soon sweep into dustbins
What are we doing?
I can take four
We have a guest room in the basement
We can take four
I know, preachy, plus political poetry has a shelf life of four and half minutes. Given time, I could re-work it, maybe. But I still have the napkin–I just transcribed it above. Writing is re-writing, but sometimes the muse speaks a little, and those moments are maybe worth memorializing too.
And when it was done, the poets, kids and old guys and 30 something women, all just writers, all just trying to say something that matters, to us and each other, awkwardly fist-bumped and high fived and handshakes. Every poem earned its fingersnaps; every poet deserves to be remembered.
Thursday nights, Enliten Bakery. I’m going back.