When I Was Street

To say I came of age as a poet on the streets of Albany, NY in the late 90s sounds silly, but it’s true.  I wrote poetry in college, but I also became president of a sorority (which is the most ridiculous incongruity of my entire life and something I rarely talk about).  I was the only poet I knew.  I didn’t go to readings, and the only poets I read were Lyn Lifshin and Langston Hughes and the Beats.  I was way too young for graduate school and floundered there.  I managed to get my degree but wasn’t able to make close friends, and the other poets in the program intimidated me.  I stopped writing poems.  They were pretty horrid, anyway.  I was writing in a vacuum and seldom progressed beyond dryads and cats and dive bars and Spanish mantillas or something like that.  Something lacy.  I was twenty three.  It was 1995.

It blows my mind sometimes to think about twenty three year old MFA students or slam poets today, the ones who have been writing and reading and studying and honing their art seriously and with careerist ambition for seven or eight years.  Maybe those young poets were around in the late 90s, too — the ones who had already amassed a significant number of rejections from literary magazines and a few acceptances, who were working, seriously, on their first collections — but they would have been aliens to me.  I didn’t know there was a path, and if I had known, I wouldn’t have know how to follow it or why.  I wrote poems.  Then I stopped.  It seemed inconsequential to everyone I knew.

In 1997, I went to my first open mic poetry reading at the amazing but long since gone punk bar The QE2.  I don’t know what brought me.  I had started writing again in a way a child might.  I like the sounds of the words and the rhythms of the language.  I wanted to write in the same rhythms that my body moved in.  I wanted the rhythms to match up.  I wanted the words and my body to say the same thing.  I had returned to dance which may have influenced my return to writing.  Both struggled to be mediocre.

But the QE2!  It was freezing.  I had a drink.  There was some strange long-haired gray beard up on stage talking about God knows what but he was passionate.  It was Tom Nattell.  And one by one, the people scattered about the room took the stage and read a poem or two.  Some were god-awful.  Some were amazing.  I read a poem about stalking.  Or maybe it was about witches.  I’m not certain, but I’m sure it was of the god-awful caliber.

(Photo by Dan Wilcox, QE2, 1997, my first open mic)

Nevertheless, R.M. Englehardt (who read a poem on the back of a book of matches) came up to me and spoke to me about my work, and about the work of others, and about Tom Nattell who ran the series, and about the other series in town.  And it hit me like a glorious revelation – all of these poets knew each other.  They drank together.  They talked with each other.  They were friends.  And I thought to myself, I want this.  I want to be among this.  I want to burrow into this.  I want this on all sides of me, and on top of me and underneath me.  I wanted the community.

But I wanted something else, too.  I wanted to merit community.  I wanted to be able to contribute to this group of amazing and dedicated poets:  R.M. whose gothic sensibilities had a modern edge; Mary Panza who was so purely hard core (you did not fuck with Mary Panza) and whose poems emanated fierceness; Don Levy who taught me how both humor and pop culture can both mock and strengthen a poem; Dan Wilcox whose poetry worked as hard as he did to progress his commitment to social activism; Annine Everson who over and over again broke her art; Terry Provost who wrote poems based on the philosophies of Noam Chomsky and history and who left me stuttering in the face of his brilliance; Alan Catlin whom I first read when I was 12;  Joe Krausman who taught me how to appreciate gesture; Debra Bump who understood the intersection between punk and poetry; and Tom Nattell who loved poetry and the land equally, and who is now a part of both.  There are many others who are part of the community, who came after I left and who carry the flame, but these were the ones who were there in 1997 when I came of age.

And I wanted to merit their friendship, and I wanted, when I took the stage, to give them something, not just to suck up their energy and encouragement.  So I started reading poetry collections in earnest so I had something to say.  And I started writing with an eye on what my poetry could achieve, not on what it was achieving.  And I went to these glorious poetry readings at Cafe Web and QE2 and the Fuze Box and Valentines and Lark Tavern and Mother Earth’s and Changing Spaces Gallery where we drank and read and talked about poetry and argued (sometimes) and kissed (occasionally) and danced and celebrated and once someone got naked.  And I realized that poetry can’t exist in a vacuum.  It can’t exist in isolation.  I mean, it can.  But it won’t thrive.  It won’t evolve.  It will give nothing and take nothing.   And its bones will wither and its muscles will atrophy and it will turn sour and smell like mold and snarl at everyone who comes close.

(Photo by Dan Wilcox, Fuze Box, March 28, 1999)

I am a poet because I come from a community of poets.   They are my tribe, my home, my roots.   They are there, in my relationship to every poem I read, to every poem I write, like a bridge of ghosts.

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1 Comment »

  1. dwlcx said

    Wow!

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