Last night, Jane and I went to Nicholas Karavatos' poetry reading at Book and Beckett in San Francisco. He is one of the writers in Punk Rock Saved My Ass, touring the West Coast this summer to promote his new book, No Asylum. Even though I'm not a huge poetry person, we like to support our writers.
The reading turned out to be astonishing and I will never look at poetry the same way again.
Not to belittle poetry, but most of the time, it bores me. I've sat through too many long winded, "evocative" readings from old women who write ten pages about how wonderful birds are (I can just hear the hate mail now). Yes, birds are wonderful, but do you really need to go on for 15 minutes about the color of their wings? Where is the passion that drove you to write about a bird? Where is the play on words, the double meanings, the less than obvious metaphors?
The night was led by poet and activist Dee Allen, who recited his poems about love, death, and living on the streets while fighting for dignity with a fierceness that was startling. He was nervous, stumbling over his words now and then and apologizing for any mistakes, but he kept the room transfixed with his presence and command of the words he had written. His poems were about the struggle for life, for hope. He is one of those street poets we all tend to ignore as we dash by on our busy errands. The next time you walk by a street poet, stop and listen. There is real talent out there.
The way Haight Ashbury's other residents treat these youngsters
Would drive anyone late into hiding, but they won't hide.
Not while eyes of the main drag followed them
Into the bright green tapestry of Golden Gate,
With his notepad scribbled down indignities
And a pocketful of tickets for crimes of status.
Each ticket, a printed example of class hatred
(excerpt from "Streeteyes" by Dee Allen, printed in the Street Sheet 2010 poetry edition)
Then Nicholas read poems from his book, and I was again struck by the beauty and power of a well written, and well spoken, poem. Nicholas wrote about love, sex, and perceptions of the Middle East where he teaches, surprising us with startling imagery, masterful language, and humor that made us laugh as well as think. He smiled, winked, wiggled his eyebrows... playing with the audience as he read.
I have a reason to live
because they want me to die.
A last goodbye
To laughing ass, says my soul.
Underworld wide web bidding up
Stock in life while the cost of
living it is not known
(excerpt of "Procreate the Revolt", from the book No Asylum, by Nicholas Karavatos)
Afterwards I bought his book, which has a beautiful black cover with the title written in shining red letters, and creamy pages inside with the perfect font to balance the weight of his prose (as a publisher, I appreciate good design).
When Nicholas was finished, there was an open mic, something I usually sit politely through while trying not to fidget as yet another person reads a poem about the birds in her back yard. And once again, I was blown away by the talent and presence of these amateur poets. It wasn't so much the words as the passion. That is what is lacking in poetry too often, and is why I dread poetry readings. Don't just paint me a pretty picture, show me why you need to paint that picture. Give me some energy, power, desire... force me to feel the same way about the birds in your back yard as you do. All of the poets who read that night did just that.
Jane read the opening section of her interview with Chestnut Growler in Punk Rock Saved My Ass and I read part of a poem from Spanish poet Silvia Escario, also from Punk Rock Saved My Ass. The book store owner bought a couple of punk books (the book store is in Glen Park if you're looking for a copy of our book). Bird and Beckett is a fabulous bookstore with a large selection of books, both used and new, and a stage where writers and musicians perform regularly. I highly recommend it. Go out and support the store and help keep another indy bookstore alive.
My mind has been changed about poetry. I love the poets in our book (Tony Walsh, Annie McGann, Christine Bruness, Nicholas Karavatos, Mark Pietrzykowski, Matt Finney, Silvia Escario) because they truly write from the heart, and now I see there are many more poets who write poetry that is alive. That's the key I guess. I want to read words that are alive, not sleepy. Now I want to discover what other fire breathing poets there may be out in the wild world of poetry. Any suggestions?