That I miss you should go without saying. So I’ll just dive right in. Helene has invited me to write to you over there in Paris about what is going on here in New York. The mission is deliberately vague, just the way I like my missions.
This week I interpreted it as an excuse to go a poetry reading on Monday Nights at a place near Union Square called Bar 13. It’s an open-mic reading. It’s Monday night. I couldn’t help but desperately miss Spoken Word Paris.
Thank God there is no more effective line in America than “I just got back from Paris.” They love it. That along with the fact that I haven’t washed my blazer since coming back from Paris (long story) gives me a certain fascinating, disheveled air.
I walk in. I am nervous, so I make sure to look especially relaxed, take a breath, relax my shoulders and push the door open.
“Hey, how’s it going?” says a man to my right with a huge triangular grin. I look over my shoulder for his friend and realize he’s talking to me.
“Hey, not so bad, and yourself?” I say and go to the bar without waiting for his answer.
“Hey, how’s it going?” says the bartender.
“Hey, not so bad, and yourself?” Do I look like someone they know? I should play it cool but I don’t. “It’s my first time here. Is this for the poetry reading thing?”
“You’re in the right place. What can I get you?”
I order a whiskey soda and she looks simply elated to get it for me. The same way I stopped noticing how foul waiters in France could be, the glow of thinking everyone in America is so fucking nice is going to wear off. So I sip my whiskey soda and bath in superficial friendliness. “Hey, how’s it going?”
Within three minutes I am talking in depth with a guy named Jon who inquires about my interests and seems delighted to know that I just came back from Paris. The room fills up to about 30 people. At the back, they’re selling copies of NYC’s Best New Poets of 2012. Turns out there’s a cover. That’s what that first “How’s it going?” was about. But they don’t make me pay it.
Poetry at Bar 13 is serious business. It’s hosted by an organization called Louder Arts. The organizer called herself a “curator” and, you know what, I’ll call her whatever she likes. The curator was surprised and delighted to know that word had traveled to Paris about their poetry night. She seemed genuinely humble. But then, don’t they always? The reading apparently starts at 7pm. They consider it sort of late that it doesn’t usually get started until 7:15-ish. This blows my mind. Who would ever show up to Chat Noir before 9? Did we ever start before 9:30? America is a punctual place.
The demographics are different from Spoken Word. Half the room is black. We Parisian Bohemians were a primarily white crew. I had that moment where you think everyone knows each other. But actually, there were plenty of loner-types hidden in the shadows.
Now for the poetry. I care less about poetry than I do about fiction and pay correspondingly less attention to it. I’ll do my best. There was no fiction read. No intermission. Little banter. Just poetry, pure and simple, served up to you with a little ditty from the DJ between poets. This, along with the two-for-one drinks, was the coolest part of the night.
In general, the poetry was that kind of confessional, slam-style poetry with less emphasis on rigorous consistency of metaphor and more emphasis on flow. The poems seem more autobiographical. Some border on narrations of events. The word “ekphrastic” was thrown out like we should all know what it means. Most people do, I ask around and it means, “inspired by a work of art.”
I forget sometimes how strong an influence race has in America. There was a poem where a white dude evoked Malcolm X (who was referenced 3 times during the evening) and talked about how he couldn’t blame some black kids for hating him. He was white in America and to be white in America is to fuck over black people.
The vibe is less self-conscious than Spoken Word, less about performance and more about the work itself. My friends and family here always say things like “I don’t know what a good poem is,” or “I don’t get poetry.” I’m pretty sure a good poem is one that moves you or evokes something. This is something most of the poems from the book of best new poets did.
Everyone has an ipod or an ipad and read their poems from there. The post-paper apocalypse has arrived to the New World. This, one poet tells me is not pretentious, it’s environmentally friendly. Sure.
The poetry didn’t seem to be about poetry. It was about issues, lonliness, relationships, the world. Each poet featured was given a grand introduction with diplomas and previous publications. This is a place where the poetic endeavor is honored and respected. Right on. Plus they were friendly.
No one sought to disgust and delight in the manner of Troy Yorke. No one was so romantic as Alberto or David. Kate Noakes and Mandoline, there was nothing like what you do going on. Lucy Gellman, you know this scene. You are a master of this scene. No one was hilarious. But they weren’t trying to be. Everyone seemed to have recently bathed.
I felt like an outsider- but a welcomed outsider. It’s a wonderful thing that in a digital, global age, a place, its specific history and culture, still shape how art happens there. Nothing I have written would really fit in at this night. I have a tendency to absorb what’s going on around me and start mimicking then doing it for myself. That means if I watch stand-up comedy, I start making up a routine in my brain, and post-musical, I am always creating my own alterna-version of “Defying Gravity.”
I had never written a poem before I went to Spoken Word in 2010 and met David Barnes and, later, Alberto and many others. But hearing how people expressed themselves and my own desire to participate (I am not a good spectator, I don’t know what to do with my hands) made me want to get the heck up there. I suppose, if I keep going to this, I will absorb a bit of slam-style and learn some new ways of taking people on a journey with words in 5 minutes or less. But that’s the thing, the poetry at this place wasn’t about the performance, it was about the words on the page. That is both a relief and a more grave task.
No one hung out afterwards. It was very much so, thank you for your performances and listening (and there was no heckling, I assure you) please go to bed now.
Perhaps they took Oscar Wilde to heart when he said that good poets are boring to talk to and
“inferior poets are absolutely fascinating.” Over the course of the evening, three separate people used that word for me. Shit. Let’s hope they were just being nice.
Better an inferior poet than no poet at all. I’m going to go back next week and bring some poems and a copy of The Bastille and then go check out Ginzberg-Gainsburg.