27 September 2013 § 2 Comments
“…I’ve decembered eastern european cities, and found graffiti rainbows muraled on the walls of bombed-out buildings, and all they were building there were churches.”
Krivo’s worn, upright bass and I grooved in the same Mississippi River eddy; Zach’s banjo twang rolled over rhymes which had been stuck in my throat for ages. Jazz and hip hop etched their spray can beats across the enraptured faces of our audience. A one-bulbed chandelier swung in small circles above my head, and my ephemeral kingdom reached to the far edges of Zigzag’s living room. The reign continued for a few seconds longer; I bowed and smiled, stalling to soak up the attention, then made sure to disappear to the kitchen while they were still applauding.
A couple of weeks ago, we went to the Portland Poetry Slam at Backspace. Now, I’ve been involved in Slam Poetry off and on for the last decade or so in that wherever I’ve moved, I’ve made it a point to find the local slams, lose at least five in a row, then resign to only reading during the open mic segments, energetically rejecting Slam’s competitive nature. It didn’t occur to me until that night at Backspace, a hip venue in Portland’s Pearl District, that one day I would grow out of Slam altogether – not just performing on its sidelines, but doing my own thing exclusive from its young and angsty passionstance.
Memorization has been a subtle enemy of mine for ages. To evolve the battle one night, I lay on the couch and plucked images from the air, hallucinations and dreams. Somewhere in my body they translated themselves into words, and journeyed into my throat and flew off my tongue and back into the atmosphere from which they came. They sounded like a raft drifting down the Mississippi at night, a woman swishing her feet in the water, decorated in filigree. Like a peacock feather birthed from the corner of her eye, spirals and vines in bluegreen violets swirling.
At the Poetry Jam Aural Pleasure #6, ZigZag and Susan’s lovechild, performers and listeners merged professionalism with infantile grace. I was honored to be amongst you. That inspiration flowed through me and into the microphone. The audience and musicians wrote my second poem; thank you. I choose to interact with poetry right now with a freestyle stream. My knees shake less; heart beats harder.
It snows sawdust in heaven when I cut down poetry to meter and rhyme. Thank you Roberto Bolaño, Saul Williams, and the mercilessly-loyal-to-form poets who thickened my skin to a clammy, callused tattoo. I’ve found a relationship with words that pleases me. Sometimes, it pleases others also: their faces glow, and air stops in their throats. The tempo of the music rises and falls like yogi rib cages on windy ridges. I’m glad to be on stage in those moments, with a mirror to show the audience the beauty I see.
18 September 2013 § 1 Comment
During yoga this morning, between warrior pose and a bout of dizziness (probably should have eaten breakfast), it occurred to me to write a feminist mission statement. Why, I do not know. Thoughts are just thoughts – especially during yoga, when the monkey mind will do anything to avoid the next stretch – but thoughts are also things: tangible, and subject to change.
I remembered that Heather, weeks ago, asked me to encourage her to exercise so that she might be more fit for the wedding. It is a request I have entirely failed to to respect. Why? I’m a sort of hermit, but somehow I got this body of a warrior, and it demands to be worked. I am at times defiant, but not lazy. Her request reached further into my heart than indolence. It spoke to an expectation and pressure that she should be other than what she was.
Okay, Sean, you don’t have to be so vigilant with your ideals – this is her wedding, she wants to look her best; so do most women for their big day. Some turn to yoga, some the gym. Others zigzag to an infantile and pretend anorexia which may or may not lead to other, and much bigger, problems.
Let’s step back for a moment from that story.
Once, in a grocery store, I watched a woman stare at tabloid magazines while unloading her cart. I saw her eyes scan the curveless bodies of bikini-clad celebrities whose thighs do not touch, and could hear from the back of the checkout line her breath fall from the crest she’d ascended that day when her son read aloud, without assistance, his first complete sentence.
Oh, my culture, let me count the self esteems you have destroyed; the minds, bodies and spirits of women you have driven to silicone prisons and disease. You stand outside the restroom demanding that they puke the food you sold them, and apply a good foundation before they walk outside.
You teach that I would not want them otherwise, that I would not be attracted by their light, even if it didn’t apply to their weight. That unless they met your ideal for beauty, they couldn’t possibly embody my utpoia for a lover, or my child’s mother.
In sooth, you’ve aimed for us both. I have not escaped your grasp, and will not apologize for broken fingers. The thing is, you’ve harmed the women whom I love. My request is that you acknowledge this. I’m capable of letting go, and forgiveness.
I hear silence from your invisible fist, so I’ll keep talking. Since childhood, my intention is respect. Not as a formality. Respect to me is that if I see the good in you, I’ll speak to it, in case you haven’t got a mirror handy. Sometimes I rely on the completed karma. My vision is better some days than others – when it’s not so good, I listen to what you say and ask you questions. I want you to understand your own potential. I may not know what it is, nor be the best partner for its cultivation, though often I’ve risked the interview process anyway, reckless and regardless, open to the possibility.. My heart as a result employs a plural state of peace.
I want you to know, my profligate culture, that I will take any risk to advance self-love and -acceptance. Even marriage to a divine creature who inspires me. Love is the least I can defy you.
10 July 2013 § 3 Comments
The first time _ saw the ocean was Huntington Beach, LA, 1995.
Eight years old, and not yet learned in how to contain excitement,
ran out to embrace it.
Swallowed so much salt water,
Hopped back to the high desert
started climbing mountains
so the sea wouldn’t call like that again.
Nineteen years later,
for five years,
I realize that
the sea was but a wound
that wanted to heal.
6 February 2013 § Leave a comment
On forgiving days I remember musical instruments stacked near the front door waiting to be thrown away, and thinking I know he hates me but will he teach me how to drum, or how to pluck the bass strings wide as my pinky. Music beat me from the inside, pounded at my ribcage wanting out. It wasn’t so different from him, really, but I couldn’t see the bruises on my insides.
The man who lived with us acted in more than one way like an overgrown baby. He wore diapers and had a beard and played Doom on Windows 3.1. He liked guns and spanked me with a faded red ping pong paddle when I didn’t do what he said. On Saturday mornings, while my mom slept after her night shift, he made hot dogs with my little brother, and told stories about his motorcycling days. Travel stories leaden with broken headlights at night and semi-truck collisions and friends’ midnight roadside funerals.
I wasn’t allowed to get dressed until dusk because the bleach and ammonia he charged me with which to clean the floors might ruin them – and I didn’t want, he said, to make them as dirty as I was. So I sat on the floor with my ammonia rags, and wiped the same cookie-sheet-sized spot for hours. “That’s okay,” he said when my four-year-old brother pointed out that I wasn’t moving very much, “he’ll clean another spot tomorrow.”
In between my bleaching shifts – that is to say, in the ten minutes before bedtime – I trekked to the living room, and stared at the dormant instruments in the dining room. Because I was “dirty,” I wasn’t allowed in the dining room. Ever.
I didn’t care about his rules, but I did care about night time, when my mom was gone. I cared about the black leather belt he tied around my feet before pulled my pants off. He lifted me up by it with his big biker arm and made me yell out loud the Smacks up to ten, twenty six, or fifty one.
Sometimes I skipped numbers. I wanted to confuse him. I wanted to kick him in the face. I wanted to shoot him with the gun with which he shot his dog Buck right in front of me. He had asked if I wanted to dig the grave. My rebellion earned me darker bruises, higher numbers. My third grade teacher Mrs. Sap sometimes asked why I insisted on standing up during class. I told her that I just wanted to stretch my legs.
One time, when I thought he was sleeping, I walked into the dining room. A blue and gray audio mixer rested on the dinner table. I’d formed the faders into a tidal wave. Cables sprawled from it and went everywhere, like Medusa’s serpentine dreadlocks. Microphones attached to black stands whose arms stretched farther than mine reached out to inquire about what I had to say. No one had asked me for my voice before. The curious mics waited for me to speak. I put my lips to one, barely able to stand for the shaking in my knees. I whispered to see if it would reply. It didn’t. I tapped on it. “Is this thing on?”
And guitars. So many guitars. Hanging from the walls, leaned against each other, strings still. Waiting to be moved. Under the table, bolted into a giant black box were horizontal boxes that featured lights and numbers and knobs. Pretty lights and words I didn’t understand. Compressor. Noise Gate. Reverb. Unity. Phantom Power.
Bill Major’s baritone mumbles rumbled like an earthquake through the cardboard french doors of my mom’s master bedroom. The sound of his footsteps rattled the metal wires that gave the snare drum its snap. The snap that sounded like ping pong paddles and the screams of my nerves as the dwarves from my brain ran with fear and messages of danger down their escalators, my limbs, to my feet.
He must have noticed the tidal wave that I’d created. As my mom set our plates in front of us for dinner, he offered with a smile to teach me about the mixer. “Can I play bass too?” I asked, excitement seething. “Absolutely,” he said.
That night, I blacked out from the pain, and the scent of ammonia in my cleaning bucket burned my throat. I wished to God to never think about music again.
At my intake interview for Charter Psychiatric Hospital a few days later, I refused the chair. The interviewer offered me a stuffed panda bear if I would sit. My mom normally insisted obedience from me, but that time she didn’t push the subject. The therapist took notes.
A year later, my foster brother Brian first put on his new copy of Jar of Flies. I was nine. His CD player sat on top of the dresser we shared; he had the top four drawers, mine the bottom three. We shared a room because my foster (his adopted) parents couldn’t fit all their compassion under one roof and provide it privacy.
When he dropped to do his bedtime pushups, the little boombox rumbled bass through our neatly-folded clothes at night. I sat on my desk doing the homework I’d told the Powers That Were I finished hours ago.
By day, Brian taught karate and opened doors for girls. Every morning he made his bed militarytight and bounced a quarter off mine at my request. He sat at a desk to write and listened to Pearl Jam and Green Day. 19 and just learning to drive stick. Sometimes he let me shift. Feel the car, he’d tell me, you’re one with it. Undoubtedly something he’d heard that day from Don, our adopted/foster dad. Not that I cared.
When I wrote, I pushed the pencil into the paper so hard it crumbled onto the page. The graphite spear tore into the paper, my anger its momentum. At school I sharpened pencils as an excuse to not write. When I’d overused the sharpener, and Mrs. Mirabel handed me a pen instead, I inked pages like the tattoos I wanted on my skin. My nerve dwarves via their fast elevators brought rage and sadness and fear through me to my fingertips, and the pen translated them into my silent voice.
Alice in Chains faded into my consciousness about the time I’d stabbed enough holes in my homework that I had to start over. Brian did his pushups. I couldn’t move from the bed. I’d never heard a man cry like that stereo did. Harmonicas and violins and pain. I didn’t understand the words, but I felt their edges. On the cover of the EP, a boy’s eyes stared at me through a jar of flies. I thought it was a mirror, and I saw myself for the first time in a glow of orange and pink and dying insects. Now, in my late twenties, when I walk into record shops, I look for Jar of Flies to feel that sense of peace again.
In the way that teenagers swear that songs were written just for them, then transform radio hits into anthems of adolescent suffering, I listened to Alice in Chains at nine, ten, eleven years old, oblivious to their myriad references to heroin, and pounded my fists on my knees and stomach and chest to the rhythm of I stay away, no excuses, don’t follow, bleed the freak and grind your angry chair down in a hole. I tried to tell my music inside that I heard it, and how could I get it out? And if I could, would I?
The stacks of instruments lay comatose near the door for years. Some were given away, or sold. Music sounded to me a beautiful and foreign language spoken by people I would never love. When I tried to speak it, my mother ordered me to turn the volume down. Lower the noise. Lower your voice. You have no voice. I drew triangles from the circle of fifths, and turned sixteenth notes on their puny heads. I tapped my foot from 4/4 time into Idon’tgivea/fuck, and practiced scales until my calluses turned my fingertips into stoic statues incapable of feeling. When I finally failed at playing with others, I went to school to learn how to engineer audio. To manipulate it to my desires. I wanted to know how to listen to others, and which way to turn the knobs to mimic the music pounding inside their chests.
From music I learned that musicians were different from people who played instruments. From music I learned that I could not play the music of my dead best friend. I could write the discombobulated history of my family with one masochistic scratch of my pen across my wrist, but I could not erase the scars.
Instead I followed the outlines of my leftover bruises until they reached the sea. Voiceless and broken open, I stepped aboard a vessel in Alaska, started nourishing myself properly, and only when I’ve lost my direction do I look backward.
Music teases me. I play with the idea of working my way inside her again. We live in each others penumbras, know the other like old lovers, and keep our eyes keen for when the sunmelody sings new curves upon us, ears open and still ringing, for the last time will never be like the next, no matter how I misplace my memories. And as soon as I remind myself that I’ve moved on, that I’ve found new loves that meet me better, she’s there to reject me out of hand, like it was her idea all along.
It’s a game, and I swing on this idea that the rules are ever-changing, like the tide and guitar strings and the flies in my jar, who die and come alive and die again, as I wish to remember them.
23 January 2013 § Leave a comment
if they ever come in,
welcome ’em simply.
and should they go,
thank god’s some lovely.
he showed the blues the night,
kept cold the dark journeys
we sowed in moldy towns,
the crooked nails of a staircase
in a whiskey old west saloon.
it’s been one-third of a well-told
tale since you and I were
more than a mandolin apart –
dreamcatcher above, she says
I can feel that you hold me in
your nightmares so tight, and
I just want you to need me tonight.
I’ve seen the moon dying
in the burning of the sky,
she said, so I quieted
the light as it plucked rays
from her phosphorous eyes.
15 October 2012 § Leave a comment
On a dismal Wednesday evening in Topeka, Kansas, autumn 2003: I stood at the library pulpit, reading a poem to a crowd of nine fellow students, one librarian, and a bald teacher from Chicago. It was the first time I’d spoken aloud by choice. I was in grade 12.
The teacher, whose name was Daniel Ferri, claimed to be a Slam Poet, whatever that was. He was leading a two-day writing workshop, and held an open mic on the evening of the first day.
I signed up for the open mic to get out of the house. Yes, I wrote poetry, but no one knew that. I certainly wasn’t of the calibre that deserved a workshop, but I could leave home for a few hours to avoid homework.
The title of the poem was ‘History’s Night.’ I thought it was the best I had, perhaps because its containing form was cohesive, or at least repetitive, and I’d cleverly placed the word ‘funereal’ where no lesser a word belonged. I stood up when my name was called, looked everyone in the eye, and let my eyes jump from the paper back to theirs at the parts I’d memorized. The students clapped. Ferri, who sat in the back with his legs crossed gaily, nodded, I thought, in approval.
Afterward, the librarian told me that Ferri wanted me in his workshop the next day, insisted that I settle the matter with my teachers: I would not be attending class on Thursday; I would be in the library, where a bald man with a VCR would redirect the course of my life.
Exactly what happened on Thursday I do not remember, but I imagine it was the normal fare of poetry workshops: we amplified our babies with our voices and overhead projectors, then butchered them with pens and dry erase markers. When half the teenage poets in the room had crawled under the tables to lament and write some more, Dan Ferri pulled the TV-VCR cart front and center, slipped SlamNation into the fat black slot, and smiled.
Maybe it wasn’t a smile knowing what his film would to me. Maybe he smiled because he was a participant, and nearly a winner, in the 1996 National Slam, the very competition captured in the film. Perhaps he smiled because he was honored, or still insulted, that Taylor Mali (!) mocked his style in the advanced rounds. Perhaps because when Saul Williams took the stage, and Dan Ferri looked directly at me for the first time all day (was I not his golden child, the only poet plucked from the open mic last night; had I not graduated instantly, inconveniently, to his already-overbooked workshop? Did I not deserve his attention undivided!?), he was telling me why he had brought me there. His look said “Sean, I know my words won’t cause earthquakes in you; they’re not meant to. I am here as a vessel, to bring you this.”
This was an ageless being whose impeccable, Saturnus flow teleported hip-hop all the way from my childhood back into my heart, whose images expanded imaginations in warp speed seconds. His nod, when he’d finished a piece, sincere, gracious, peaceful. If a poet could be embodied, a poet would look like Saul Williams. I wanted to do what he did. I wanted to know what he did. I wanted to stand up in the world and show up like he did.
My notebook became one littered with images and passionate pieces that I couldn’t wait to unleash on a stage. I asked around to see if there were any poetry slams in Topeka. I called coffee shops, where they were commonly held in far off places like New York City and Chicago. They hadn’t even heard of them.
I felt enlightened with no direction as to where to point my light. Where could I read? Where could I go to be inspired? Fuck you, Dan Ferri. How could you give this to me and not offer me an outlet?
In the nine years since Saul Williams’ performance jolted me into believing that words could change how people thought and saw the world, I’ve swum Saturn’s rivers with stolen pens, performing in slams only when it felt right, when the competitive edge didn’t define the event. Dada, in Delray Beach Florida, popped my cherry. I wrote my favorite piece in a double decker bus in Asheville, during an open mic in which I had to duck my head when I spoke. In 2010 Anchorage, I organized with a friend an open-mic poetry jam solely because I missed the stage.
My interest and dedication to Slam have rarely lasted long, but have been at pivotal times to form friendships that I cherish. My own nod is one of completion; whether it has the peace I see in Saul’s gratitude I don’t know. This weekend I’ve introduced myself to the poetry scene in Portland, a place where hipsters hate hipsters, where the traditional Slam scores were thrown out the window when someone realized no one in Liberal Arts Degree, USA could do math, where the poets are vibrant vagabonds from the world over, one and all the skinny-jeaned welcoming committee.
To this day, I have the copy of Dan Ferri’s book he gave each of us. He signed mine “to the great substitute.” I wonder if someone had abandoned his slot so that I could have a place in the workshop. The Poet’s Flow is an instinctual drift from one place to the next, and we belong exactly where we are. For now.