May 1, 2012 by Tracey S. Rosenberg
My visit to the USA was, shall we say, one of those vacations where you need a vacation afterwards. In spite of all the rushing around – occasionally fun errands to places such as Trader Joe’s (Tiger Milk bars, taco shells, sweet potato chips…) and pet shops (Thundercat, cruelly abandoned, deserved a catnip toy), but mostly multiple visits to insurance agents, Washington State employees, and notary publics (don’t ask) – I found some poetry.
Ironically, in the hippie mothership of Berkeley, California, I wasn’t able to track down a poetry open mic during the time I was in town, but I located one in Everett, Washington. This is a town which, according to someone who grew up there in the 1980s/1990s, could have been described as a post-industrial, drug-fueled wasteland. NB this is not my personal opinion; I wasn’t there then, and I rather like the place, though that could largely have been gratitude that the Half-Price Books stays open till 10pm. And they have Schack Art Center, which might be the place where I saw an exhibition of typewriters in a series of large windows, but I am not sure. And Firewheel Books and Beans, where I got really nice steamed milk and two books.
And: weekly poetry events at a vegetarian-friendly cafe!
That would be Cafe Zippy, which I highly recommend even if you aren’t looking for poetry. I had some excellent soup and hummus and smoothie (not in the same bowl; that would be wrong). On Thursdays, they do an open mic for poets and acoustic musicians, though sadly, on my night, all the musicians apparently had other things to do.
I have been part of the Edinburgh literary scene for long enough to have a generally good idea of what goes on here, but had no idea how poetry in Everett would work, and I don’t want to say I was pleasantly surprised because that would be patronising. The pieces that stuck in my mind included a Native American woman exploring the gendered and racially-motivated dismissal and violence that’s informed her life, and a woman who wrote about being shunned as an unwed mother even as she was suffering a miscarriage, and a very tall Buddhist. (The MC, Garrett Rutledge, finished his introduction while adjusting the microphone about a foot upwards.)
I got to be a featured reader, which allowed me a 20-30 minute set, and I had fortuitously packed several poems, so I read many of them, while in my head I was noting that I really need to write some happier stuff. Alternately, I should choose a wider selection to tuck into my suitcase, as these were part of an application (so a lot of serious stuff), whereas I could have done some of my performance-friendly pieces – though I’m not sure how well my ‘being repeatedly asked about being American’ poem works outside of Scotland. I liked the space – plenty of seats for the audience, without being too cramped. I don’t yet have the photos of me reading but frankly, most photos of me reading look roughly the same, so just imagine me standing in front of a microphone, with my mouth open, and that should do it. I was in a red shirt. Not in a Star Trek kind of way, though.
Garrett had a donation cup for the featured reader, which meant that at the end of the evening I was pleasantly surprised to be handed $11.
Which I gave, the following night (plus four additional bucks), to the people selling tickets to the Seattle Poetry Slam grand finals.
I’ve only recently gotten into slams, and I’d never seen any American performances except on YouTube, so I wanted the immersive experience, and I have to pause here and give huge thanks to my husband, who drove me into Seattle in spite of being exhausted and more willing to curl up in bed with the final hundred or so pages of Moby-Dick. See this blog entry for other details about why I am terrifically lucky.
I have to say that I was pretty tired myself, so I watched the entire showcase section – including the feature spot by Airea “Dee” Matthews, who gave me about a million inspirations for things I could write and perform – but only the first poems by each of the eight slam competitors. Hence I can’t do a full review of the night. But the main thing that stuck out for me was the audience response – not just applause and whoops at the end of the performance, but expressions of delight/approval/thoughtfulness during the poems. Which, I’m guessing, is one of the things that separates slam performances from poetry readings, and I approve. There was an energetic vibe in the hall and I’m not sure I’ve ever been part of something similar, not as a poet anyway. I would like to be. There are Discussions occurring within Scotland about our own performance poetry scene, so I will take part.
I wasn’t enthused by the tendency of the competitors to walk onstage and then take a quiet moment to center themselves. The energy had a tendency to drop, even with some verbal encouragement from particularly involved audience members, and that seems antithetical to performance.
This is now a very long entry, so I will conclude by saying that I have a lot to learn about performance poetry, and intend to keep going. But hopefully in future I can do this while ensuring that my husband gets enough sleep.