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Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Luck and Danger of Being "on the List"

Ever go to an open mic and have the owner of the venue chase after someone with a machete? I couldn't make up better fiction if I tried. Tonight I tried to go check out a new open mic venue in a nearby town (location purposely undisclosed) but never saw the stage.

I got there early to "get on the list." The host told me I was lucky he was gonna let me perform even though I had not called him earlier in the day. He was gonna "squeeze me in". When I asked him how many poems I would be able to read, he said, "Probably only one. Too many people on the list now that you have been added!" That's right my tardy arrival will ruin things for everyone! Rule #1 about open mic-ing: DONT BE LATE.

The open mic host or MC is a unique beast: moody, powerful, by turns generous and cruel. One night the beast will bite your head off in front of a packed house, another night he or she will sing your praises and give you the primo spot. Arriving late to an open and asking too many questions are both moves that are guaranteed not to endear you to the MC. I had been put on notice. I knew I had to be on my best behavior.

So I tried. I sat quietly in a corner of the restaurant perusing the menu while calculating the effect my leaving and coming back right before stage time would have on my relationship with the MC when a heated argument broke out amongst the workers. A strike about unfair wages? A debate about the best way to make tonight's special? I had no way of knowing as their highly accented English was not entirely comprehensible to an outsider like me. The argument ended and a woman sat nearby with puffy eyes looking sad and angry. Another woman came and led the girl out onto thte street to wait for someone.

Not wanting to embarass her, I tried to appear disinterested. My facade however was quickly shattered when a man came running past me with a cutlass as long as a yardstick but much sharper. WTF?

The rest of the people, who apparently were privy to the true state of affairs, had already run out of the restaurant. This left me and one kitchen cook to fend for ourselves while the machete wielding man stood in the doorway of the eatery slashing his huge knife in the air at the people outside. About 6 feet separated me and the crazy man. The cook was safely esconced behind a tall counter. Lucky her.

I would like to say I went running screaming from that place, never to return. After all, nobody wants to risk losing an arm for a ten-minute spot in an open-mic, right? Or that I wrestled the man to the ground and retrieved the weapon thus saving everyone.

The true ending to this stranger than fiction account is much less spectacular. I merely edged my body towards the kitchen door to place some distance between the madman and me, scanned the joint for other exits and proceeded to discuss with the cook which of the items I had ordered were missing. Stuck around long enough to pay for my food and make sure the knife had been wrestled away from the man (by none other than the MC! All that attitude is good for soemthing it seems) and the exit was clear. Then I left.

Since I was the only non-employee who witnesed this display of faux masculinity, I suspect that the open mic went on. Upon the insistence of my lawyer, Ava, however, I did not return to the scene of the crime that night. While I thought the story might provide the perfect set-up for my Wonder Woman poem, she felt certain my work would be likely be labeled "femi-Nazi" by the likes of men who thought that brandishing rusty machetes was a good way to settle a disagreement.

What were they fighting about? I may never know but on my way out I asked the MC and he told me the woman who had crying had been punched in the face and her brother had come to protect her. Since the man with the machete was neither the wronged party (the woman), the assailant (escaped on foor I was told) nor the protective brother, it was never made clear to me who he was trying to kill. I have good reason to believe he was on the wrong side.

Some happy unsuspecting performers came sauntering in as I was leaving, oblivious of the drama that had transpired. I felt envious of their calm self-satisfaction. I may have to ammend rule number one regarding timeliness. A late arrival would have made all the difference last night....

Tampa, Difficult Subjects, Pride

Friday night I drove all the way to Tampa to read some poetry in an open mic at Jake's Java Joint. Performers included a mix of poets and musicians and they were very friendly. The venue looked like an office supplies store by day/ nightclub by night. They had couches, a black backdrop with shimmery lights, smoothies, snack food, espresso and many pieces of office equipment piled up in stacks along the back half of the space. I couldnt help feeling we were part of some underground arsty employee heist of an unsuspecting office supply chain. Kudos for making the most of your day job, you overworked xeroxing artiste!

Ava (my publicist) and I arrived very very late and thus missed most of the other performers but the audience was quite forgiving. I read two poems, "We Are the Women" and "Purple People". "We are the Women" is about survivors of child sexual abuse and as such is a risky choice. Are they gonna cry? Tune out? Walk away in horror? One never knows. I got lucky (if such a word can ever be appropriate given the subject matter) --nobody stood up and walked out.

I have had the simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate experience most of the times I have read that poem of having a large number of audience members respond to the piece by looking at me with looks of unexpected but frank recognition. They KNOW what I am talking about even if they wish they didnt. For most poems, such looks would be entirely gratifying but seeing these looks in response to a poem about survivors and incest is bittersweet. Looking into their eyes makes it difficult for me to finish the poem without crying even though I recognize with some satisfaction that such responses mean I am speaking FOR as well as to many people with this poem. It is my hope that when I read it I am speaking for those who cannot or will not speak of such things. Why should they? Living through it is enough.

The people loved Purple People but then they always do. What's not to love about a poem about loving yourself? Loving your mixed self when people want you not to?

I got to talk to a number of poets after the event and found out that Tampa is boiling over with poetry venues. I will be back!