Saturday, December 5, 2009

Part 1: NYDC BLUES: How I Tried To Escape The Sick World Of Poetry

The rules were that you had to give your name and occupation before reciting your first poem. Naturally, I tried to evade this unnecessary formality which to me seemed akin to a rooftop sniper announcing his name and address before firing upon the crowd below. But before I could begin they started yelling, “What’s your name?”

I looked around the room. It was jammed full of people.

“José,” I answered with some difficulty.

“What do you do?” they shouted.

That was a even tougher question. I didn’t have a job, and for me to declare that I was a writer at this point would be presumptuous on my part. I thought about it for a second, then said, “I’m an alcoholic. What the hell are you?”

I hadn’t had a drink in weeks, but here I was—shitfaced and hostile, staring out into a crowd of poetry addicts at some place in Washington called The 15 Minutes Club. I’d fallen off the wagon in a horrible way, but it wasn’t because I was drinking. It was because I was reading poetry.

“This first poem is called ‘A Short History Of Everyone In The World,’” I said, and then began to read:

         “On the train going
         back to my home town
         people are laughing at the
         drunk who’s making fun
         of the bald spot on a guy
         a few rows up.
         Across the aisle from me
         a deaf man is making garbled passes
         at all the women walking by
         on the way to the club car.
         Next to me a girl
         with a silly haircut
         is drinking a beer and
         talking to everyone in sight
         between drags of her cigarette.
         It’s one of those
         holiday weekend party trains
         where everyone’s celebrating
         and ready to tell their life story...”

The poem was about a train ride I’d taken from New York to Washington, my hometown. I’d left Washington about three years earlier, when George Bush was still president, to explore the possibilities in New York. But now—with the Democrats back in charge—I was living in Washington again, and to my chagrin things didn’t seem all that different from what I remembered of the days of the Republican occupation. In this state of disillusionment, my only recourse was to drink heavily like the guy in my poem.

         “The drunk guy is going
         to Richmond where he’ll find a bar
         and drink some more.
         The haircut girl is going
         to Philadelphia—she plans
         on becoming a hairdresser.
         The guy with the bald spot
         has just gotten out of prison
         and he’s trying to stay
         calm and out of trouble.
         The deaf guy is just horny
         and doesn’t bother to read
         the lips of the women
         who tell him to fuck off...”

I looked up from my poem and out into the crowd again. They were silent, hanging onto to my every word. I had them, as they say, in the palm of my hand—which meant that I hadn’t lost my touch for winning over a crowd. I looked back down to my poem and continued reading, feeling like some desperate junkie rolling drunks on the downtown A-Train.

         “When the haircut girl
         asks me for my story
         I tell her,
         ‘I saved up my money
         to buy this train ticket
         so I could visit home
         and get there comfortably.
         I cut my spending in half
         by eating my own shit.
         Why I’ve been living off
         the same macaroni and cheese
         dinner for two months now.’

         ‘Oh,’ she says, startled, grimacing.

         `Excuse me,’ I say, `I have
         to go to the bathroom now.’

         When I stand up
         everyone’s quiet,
         and I know that when
         I get back to my seat
         I’ll be able to just relax
         and sleep.
         No stories, no loud laughter,
         no more rude comments,
         snide remarks, or subtle innuendos.
         I’d put an end to that
         because I’d just said all
         there was in the world
         to be said.”

When the crowd began to cheer I immediately walked off the stage.

“You have to stay up there,” the emcee told me, pointing to a chair at the back of the stage. “You’re supposed to read three poems in each round.”

“I’m just getting my drink,” I said.

I reached to the bar and grabbed my glass of Jack Daniel’s, then walked back to the stage while the poet I was up against began reading his first poem. I sat down and stared at my drink before taking an endless sip... And then another until nothing was left but the barely melted ice cubes. I’d need quite a few more drinks before the night was through, because I was doing a poetry slam, and because from the way things were going it seemed more than likely that I was going to win. I leaned back and nervously chewed on an ice cube, knowing that in my wretched heart I was a long way from Mayberry.

The Wonder Years

Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a poet, and in the early 80s I began sending my poems out to magazines in the hopes of making the transition from being a simple poet to being a published poet. As is the case with most writers of any sort, I had no luck at first. I’d send out batches of poems and then receive a little note two, three, sometimes six months later, saying “Thanks for allowing us to read your poems. We are sorry to report, however, that they didn’t quite work for us.” I’d been warned about this in college where a teacher advised me that I had better be prepared to plaster my walls with rejection slips, because the process of becoming a published writer could take years and years, and that I might even be dead before anyone saw my work as being fit to publish.

Fortunately it didn’t take quite that long, and in 1985 I had my first poem accepted for publication in a literary magazine all the way across the country in Berkeley, California. Finally, one year later, the magazine came out. By then, of course, I didn’t much care for the poem, and seeing it again was something akin to seeing your worst enemy from high school bagging groceries at the supermarket. Which is to say that although it was a triumph of sorts, it was also, because of the amount of time it took, a rather pathetic triumph. I needed a way to get my work out there quickly while it was still fresh in my mind. I needed a way to see my poems into print immediately so that I could move on to newer work and not have to worry about the fate of my past work. The best way to do this, it seemed, was to start a magazine.

In the fall of 1986 I—along with two of my friends from Catholic University in Washington, Michael Randall and Stephen Ciacciarelli—began working on the first issue of Big Cigars. What we wanted was to publish a magazine that was anti-academic, something that would disgust our old professors and make them think that they had wasted all the effort they put into providing us with a classical education. We liked people like Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs, writers the academic establishment tended to sneer at. And in our magazine, Big Cigars, we wanted to publish our own work as well as work by other writers with a similar outlook on literature. As Michael and Stephen had moved to New York after college, while I was still in Washington, it seemed that we would have two different cities from which to attract writers for the magazine. But that wasn’t the case.

Here in Washington it was impossible to get anyone interested in contributing. One writer I met at a reading, on my asking if he would like to contribute some poems, replied, “Why do you want to publish me?” as if I’d just asked him if I could punch his creepy little face in.

“Well, your stuff is pretty good,” I answered. I had just heard him read, and unlike most of the other poets at this event—he didn’t name all the different kinds of plants he knew or go on about the youthful summers he spent vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard.

“Well, I’ll have to think about it,” he said, before walking off like Captain Kirk after having just destroyed a Klingon warship.

That was as close as I got to getting any Washington writers in the magazine.

Since we weren’t able to attract any of the local crowd for the magazine, we ended up featuring a good number of people from New York. Still, as I was publishing the magazine here in Washington, and as the address for submissions was also here, Big Cigars was for all practical purposes a Washington magazine. But despite this, local bookstores and newsstands declined to carry it. A typical response—as from the manager of Idle Times bookstore in Adams Morgan—was, “We don’t carry that esoteric kind of stuff.” So I’d send the bulk of the copies of Big Cigars to New York. Up there places like St. Marks Books, Spring Street Books, and Coliseum Books would accept huge batches of them which would sell out in a matter of weeks. For a small literary magazine that was very good business, and it soon became apparent that the atmosphere in New York was much better for the sort of things we were doing with Big Cigars.

I began going up to New York several times a year for readings Michael or Stephen had set up. These were always well attended and unpretentious events. I was surprised that few of the writers I met in New York displayed the kind of attitude I found in Washington, where even the most obscure poet would come on with all the neuroses of an Edgar Allan Poe while displaying none of the talent. But in addition to this I also found that, overall, New York was a much more pleasant place to be than Washington, and that, oddly enough, life was much easier there.

So it was with a sense of relief, rather than trepidation, that in the fall of 1990 I made the big move from Washington to New York City. In New York I got more involved in the poetry scene and actually began to make money from my writing. New York was where I first got the idea that I might even make a living from my writing. It was where I did my first poetry slam. It was where I began to get my work published regularly. It was where I first appeared on national television. It was where I fell truly in love for the first time. It was where for the first time in my life I felt I was in a city where I belonged. It was also where, after having cast off the last vestiges of my youthful insanity, I vowed to give up poetry completely.

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