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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Home in Oaktown

Coming back to Oakland always feels like coming home...The crisp smell of the air, the bright sun, the easygoing nature of the inhabitants, the beautiful rainbow of faces one sees, the delicious Vietnamese and Thai food, the innumerable cafes full of ernest young scholars. Oakland, whats not to love? I could write 100 love ballads to this city and it would not suffice.

It is interesting to notice how lands make and change us, how they pull on us and capture us, how they beguile and seduce us, how they demand of us that we retrieve ancient aspects of ourselves, how they birth us anew. I am a certain kind of person in Oakland and I can never be that person anywhere else. I am a certain kind of writer here, a certain kind of lover, a certain brand of activist. Oakland is where I blossomed as a poet so many years ago. Oakland is where I discovered there was a use, a need, a demand even for my voice.

The story goes like this: I was working my way through the PhD program at UC Berkeley, working at a wide assortment of temporary, low-paying jobs, and renting an adorable studio apartment on 38th street in the Piedmont area of Oakland. The time came, as it often does with students, when one job ended and another one was yet to materialize. Since I was not bequeathed with rich relations I never had a trapeze net. I was left to my own devices.

Now women left to their own devices in circumstances such as these have resorted to all kinds of desperate moves.  I was fortunate to have had one card up my sleeve and that card was poetry. A classmate and dear friend, Ashley Phillips, had earlier that year insisted on putting my poetry together into a chapbook, Names, which he published under the auspices of his nascent publishing company, "Indigenous Speak." I had a stack of these and I started going out to open mics in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco every night of the week, getting on the mic and selling books.

I sold my books for $8 a piece (minus a cost of $2 per book) and I made rent in two weeks. Rent was about $550 (the good ole days) so if we do the math....( and one has to add in bus and train fare to make the total income closer to 575) we get that I had to have sold about 91 books in order to make $575 dollars at $6/per book... 91 books in 14 days..is a minimum of six books per night. Keep in mind these were Open Mic's! Not features! So I was selling 6 books a night by reading ONE poem a night. No small deed at all.

Thus my poetry career was born... For, until that desperate two week period  I was not sure how serious I ought to take my poetry. I had always imagined I wrote for other people but after those two weeks I KNEW without a doubt that I did. Countless individuals came up to me and proclaimed that I had "told their story."  I had not known that my work spoke to people in that way--that it mattered and I did not know that people liked my poetry enough to actually buy it.

Now I am much clearer. I know why I write and I know that my writing is necessary, whether or not it makes money. I know now that I write to tell the stories that need to be told. Other people's stories- those they either will not or cannot tell themselves.
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