WHY I WANT TO BE PATRICIA SMITH: First, let me admit complete and total bias when it comes to poet Patricia Smith. She's been a friend since 2003 and honored me by writing the blurb for the back cover of Better To Travel. I haven't seen Patricia in about a year or so, although we occasionally exchange emails and keep up via our blog/livejournal entries. So it was a great pleasure to see her twice this weekend and get to hear some of the new poetry she's working on.

On Friday night Poetry at Tech hosted its third reading of the season with an event at the Defoor Center. This was billed as an all spoken word show with Kodac Harrison, Ayodele, Bob Holman, ML Liebler, Regie Gibson and Patricia all performing. There was a big crowd on hand for this and the Defoor Center's auditorium and stage is great for this kind of event. A film crew was their shooting the reading for a documentary on spoken word, but I never got the full details on who was behind it or when it might come out. Tom Lux introduced Ayodele, who actually hosted the event and performed. Kodac opened the show with a great mix of his spoken word and music, including "Edith's Kitchen" and "Maria's Eyes," which are two of his best works.

While it was a great evening, it was long and there were too many poets on the bill. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea getting all of them together at once, but I now know from experience (the last Voices Carry event at the Carter Center) that less is more. Everyone went over their time limit (not unusual for a poet...I'm certainly guilty), but some went way over. And some of it...well...I just didn't "get." Bob Holman, who has a resume most poets can only dream of and is known as the "poetry czar" in New York, gave a wild, uneven "performance." He was running all over the room, falling on the floor and was off the mic so you couldn't hear part of it. He closed strongly, reading a praise poem from a book of photographs he collaborated on about fellow artists, A Couple of Ways of Doing Something.

The journalist in me keeps one eye on the performer and the other on the audience to gauge reaction, and I was a bit stunned to see some of the eye-rolling, frowns and refusal to clap at some of Ayo's poems...especially the ones where he touched on race. A black woman sitting in front of me folded her arms and had her mouth set in such a grimace that I wanted to smack the back of her head. This was after Ayo read his poem "On A Fieldtrip to the Jim Crow Museum..." (which Kodac and I just nominated for a Pushcart Prize for appearing in the Java Monkey Speaks anthology). Another poem, "The Dreamlife of Dr. Bledsoe's Inner Pickaninny," had two black women across the aisle looking at each other and rolling their eyes and they didn't clap. As soon as Ayo finished, they got up and left. Ayo touched a nerve in the room, but I applaud him for the honesty he brings to his work. You can read both of the poems at Ayo's website.

ML Liebler had some good stuff, but it went a bit off the wall when he decided to plug in a CD player and "sing" over a trance/ambient instrumental. He then had Regie Gibson, Travis Denton and Kodac come onstage and try to keep up with the CD and his performance. It was, frankly, a mess. There were too many sounds competing for dominance and it just turned into a wall of noise. I couldn't tell you what the poem was about, but hats off to Kodac, Travis and Regie for being good sports and keeping some rhythm.

Speaking of Regie Gibson, he started his set with a long piece that was all over the place and included singing, some Shakespeare and scatting. The rest of the set was tight and he has a beautiful speaking voice. His metaphors and rhymes roll of his tongue effortlessly. If you've seen the film Love Jones you know what I'm talking about. He was also the sacrificial poet at last night's Art Amok slam (more on that in a minute) and proved why he's a national slam champ.

That leaves Patricia. I hardly know where to begin. She read a few pieces from her award-winning Teahouse of the Almighty, but then launched into a new piece she's tentatively calling "34." It's written in the voices of the senior citizens left to die in the St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina. You could have heard a pin drop as she read the 34 short poems, where she transformed into those poor people. It reminded me of Anna Deavere Smith morphing into her characters in Twilight Los Angeles. Although I've read plenty of poems (and wrote a few of my own) about Katrina, I've never heard anything quite as moving as this new work. She told me afterwards that the 34 poems are the centerpiece of a new book. I wish everyone could hear/read it right now.

Last night, Patricia performed again at the Art Amok Slam at 7 Stages. The evening got off to a very late start because of technical difficulties, but it was worth the wait. Patricia did an entirely different set of poems and read another Katrina poem. This one took a series of emails between a FEMA worker and disgraced director Michael "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie" Brown. She juxtaposed the casual email exchange (which proved just how out of touch FEMA was in the aftermath of Katrina) and some searing images of what was really happening in the hellish streets of New Orleans. Again, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. I know a lot of folks are over Katrina, but there is such an urgency in Patricia's poems that it drops you right back into the middle of the disaster.

Today, I'm poetically spent. I've got ideas for poems rattling around in my head, but they aren't ready to be birthed yet. As I mentioned earlier, Kodac and I are submitting six poems from the Java Monkey Speaks anthology for the Pushcart. The poets: Stephen Bluestone, Melisa Cahnmann, Richard Garcia, Ayodele, Cherryl Floyd-Miller and Patricia Smith. The envelope goes in the mail tomorrow. Good luck to all of you.

I'm going back to bed now.

Comments

M. Ru Pere said…
Yes to all that - great show Friday, tho, as you pointed out, some energy got sucked by a few overly-long sets - props to all at Tech for pulling the thing together - on Sat nite while waiting and waiting for the venue to open up, I got a great feel, talking to Patricia, of the touring artist in an exhausted state, but then she pulled it together to kick some ass - thanks for the nice review (I bailed . . )
Anonymous said…
I dont know how you sit through all this stuff. I would blow my brains out. I got Smith's book on your recommendation. She's easy to understand and can be pretty funny to.

GAV
Anonymous said…
I dont know how you sit through all this stuff. I would blow my brains out. I got Smith's new book on your recommendation. She's good.
Anonymous said…
FUCK! Blogger pisses me off. Sorry i posted twice. Now three times.

GAV
I appreciate your honesty in your critique of Friday night's performance. I am normally short-winded in my sets, so I really apologize if my set went on too long. Ironically, I cut my set short to try to move the show along faster!

Regarding "On a Fieltrip to the Jim Crow Museum...," I don't know that I feel like clapping is an appropriate response. It is a very ugly poem - intentionally so. It's purpose is to be unsettling. If I were in the audience and I heard someone read it, I likely wouldn't clap either. I'm open to discussion about that, though.

The "Inner Pickaninny" poem, too, is intended to induce a conflicted response. Ideally, I want the audience to question whether it is okay to laugh. Further, are they laughing because it's funny or because it makes them feel uncomfortable? "The Tragic Mulatto," which I didn't perform, is another one in this vein.

I would say that lately I'm moving toward playing emotional "chords" as opposed to single notes - humor, horror, sadness - as opposed to, say, just humor. I don't want to be so "easy" that an audience always knows whether to clap or cry or shout or laugh. I'm seeking to complicate rather than to clarify.

In a larger context, this is how snapping at poetry readings became a response to poems. Granted, the response is cliche, but it began because clapping isn't always appropriate.

From what you saw on Friday, do you think there are things I could do to be more effective in my mission? Or do you think I'm on a wrong path?
Collin said…
Ayo, the reaction of those people in the audience on Friday night proves to me that you are pushing buttons, taking people out of their comfort zones and holding up a mirror. Change nothing. You are absolutely on the right path.

And by the way, your set was the perfect length, so you have nothing to fret about. :)
M. Ru Pere said…
yes, ayo - you were a superb host and your set was not too long by any means - it was mostly the ones w music and wandering around that dragged it out a bit - imho of course - but it was also uncharted territory . . . that kind of show

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