Daily Archives: May 3, 2009

Music Our Mother

is universal —

every beat
Esperanto, every scratch
a meme coursing
the world.

In the Atlas Mountains
of Morocco
a Berber boy
falls into the arms
of KRS-One,
and north of there, Mick Jagger
kisses an Andorran shepherd
on the ear. 

I can carry the planet
in a sliver of electronics
every time I leave the house…
speak, I say to it.
Tell me how you are,
how we are, that somehow,
this will make it all right.

Break it down for me,
rock of all ages, the simple
tongue of bass and drum
without need of translation.

We can say it all to each other
this way,
talking long into the twilight,
improving the air,
creating a fast wind
that blows over
and ruffles our hair
as our mother would,
as only she can,

with a lullaby on her lips.

The poems I slammed with tonight

at the First Line/Last Line slam at the Asylum, where I took second place.  (Out of three competitors — don’t get too excited…)

Greetings From Worcester       

Greetings from Worcester, 
the Heart Of The Commonwealth!

Unlike Boston it doesn’t sprawl so much as simmer 
like plain old stew in a pot in the hills 
at the head of the Blackstone River.   

It’s a city without a skyline. 
Nothing sticks out much from a distance.
Maybe it’s those hills that keep our thinking contained. 
Maybe that’s why most of our buildings are triple-decked and diner-squat,
and the only towers are in the low sections where they don’t make much of a fuss.

The stew’s made up of people who used to say,
"Greetings From Monrovia, San Juan, Khe Sanh, Port Au Prince, San Jose, Decatur, Attleboro, Uxbridge…"
and then ended up here, so now they say "Greetings From Worcester"
in a more or less resigned tone,
their faces betraying their bemusement
that this is where they’re now from. 

It doesn’t take much to get here or to leave. 
People do it all the time –
splash in and out, and often back in again.
This pot sits on an old gas stove
and never quite comes to a boil,
so the ones whoseek the electricity of bigger places 
go elsewhere when it rolls too quietly.

But there are some who belong here.

We’re the ones who know that though 
the flame is low, it’s blue hot at the center
and if you get down below to where it burns,
it cooks you through to where you taste
the way you were always meant to. 

We’re the good stuff you dig through the bowl
to get at
and we’re the ones you’ll miss
when you’re done.

If you leave
and come back to visit from wherever you’ve landed, 
we’re the ones who look at you,
remind you of the daffy flavors we offer —

our greasy spoons,
our broken streets,
our ravaged trees,
our wintered-in faces of stolen comfort —
and at our center, right in our very heart of hearts,
a sad boy
riding a scared turtle
into improbable ecstasy,
making do just the way we all do.

We’re the ones who say,
without malice,
knowing you’re the same as us: 
it’s good to see you again.

It doesn’t taste the same without you.

Wish you were here.


The Moon

The moon,
it is said,
can draw out our aspirations.

After all, 
the earth is mostly water
forever worked on by the moon. 

So we stand 
knee deep in water
to look at the moon. 

We think we can feel it 
urging our momentum 
toward what we desire.

We call the
most active dreamers
"lunatics" to honor that, 

and so we hesitate to dream big. 
That’s an honor
we don’t desire.

We grow black and blue
from where the earth has pounded us
and our skins prune up as we age 

from the long action of the moon upon them. 
But we keep staring
at the moon thinking: if only, if only… 

Listen: men went to the moon once.
They came back when they learned
that our momentum dies there. 

We learned that the moon 
was once as fluid as earth is now, but   
only when it was violently moved from outside. 

Nothing there moved on its own, 
and every step on the moon
just made the visitors rise, weakly, 

back toward the earth.   
Let the lunatics have the moon. 
We can move ourselves more than it can move us. 

Any dream we have 
is an earthly one,
no matter how crazy it seems. 

The moon is what we make it,
not the other way around.
It only changes when it’s struck, 

never strikes of its own accord,
and even the tides
are just following a dead thing. 

All we have to do
to make a life we yearn for
is move toward it on our own. 

The moon is no god.
Let that poor old corpse


Details of the slam rules here.

“What happens in Manch Vegas stays in Manch Vegas.” (edited for new content)

NOTE:  I’ve added some content to the end of this that reflects a couple of days’ worth of thoughts and observations.  That’s why I bumped it up.  If you’ve read this before and commented, you can skip down to the heading "Addendum — The Aftermath." 


And in a lot of ways, that’s pretty much how it went down.

I’ve been telling people for weeks that I had a mysterious special something planned for my May 1 feature in Manchester, NH. Last night, I did the show, and now I can talk about it.

About ten years ago (as near as I can recall — sometime in late 1999 or early 2000) I did a reading in Worcester that started as a kind of artistic challenge and turned into something much larger, at least for me.

The concept: do a feature that consisted of a set of poems that would only be read once and never again. Seemed simple enough at first. But as I worked on the set for that first feature, I began to learn something about the nature of what we do as poets and the idea began to expand.

It became something I call a "rip up reading." After it was done, I didn’t think I’d ever do it again.

Last night, I did it again in Manchester, for reasons I’ll explain below.

The Format:

1. Keep the nature of the show secret. Don’t share the poems or the nature of the show with anyone at all prior to the show. Nothing online, no workshopping — nothing. (Slight amendment to this: in both cases, I took one person into my confidence as to what I was planning so I’d have someone to at least share some of the emotional journey of writing the set with. But no one sees the poems themselves.)

2. Write the set. (This takes a while, because if you’re going to do this, you need to have poems that you have a significant amount of blood and investment in — they have to be at least good, and hopefully it’s the best work you’re capable of. In both cases, that was about three months of time, carved out from my regular writing time. ) In both cases, it was a set of eight or nine poems. Already, I don’t recall.

3. Day of the feature, print one copy of the set, then wipe out the files for it on the computer, so there’s only one copy of the poems in existence.

4. At the start of the show, ask for everyone in attendance to shut off anything they can use to make a record of the performance. Cameras, cell phones, video, etc. Last night, I extended that to Tweeting and texting during the show. Gotta keep up with the technology.

5. Ask foran audience member to volunteer to help you during the set. Don’t explain why, but assure them they don’t have to do anything on stage; they just need to sit up front.

6. Explain what you’re doing (I’ll explain the rationale below in more detail) — that you’ll be reading a set of poems that no one’s ever seen or heard before, or will again.

(In both cases, I opened and closed the set with poems that didn’t fit the bill exactly, as a way of ritually easing in and out of the actual rip-up set. In 1999, it was "Mission Statement" and "Do It Yourself;" last night, it was "Burying The Needle in Massachusetts" to open, and "Green" to close. Both had been posted here, but neither had been read publicly before. Again, more about the rationale to follow .)

I also added a special, one night only version of "Radioactive Artist" last night, as a coda — I felt inspired to do it because it’s got imagery about hunting for volcanoes in it and I wanted to acknowledge something about Craig Arnold’s disappearance; in addition, the revision I did last night fit the theme of the night which was "cars."

7. Explain the volunteer’s role — that as each poem is completed, the volunteer rips the copy of the poem into tiny pieces and puts them into some receptacle — a bag or an envelope. At the end of the night, the host gets the ripped up copies to do anything with that they want — as long as they don’t reassemble the poems. (I know Bill MacMillan still has the first set; Mark Palos isn’t sure yet what he’s going to do with his.)

8. Explain, very briefly, the rationale as given below. I use an Ani Difranco quote to help make the point, from "Fuel:" "People / used to make records / as in the record / of an event / The event / of people / making music /in a room." It’s a way of introducing the idea that the event is precious, the moment is precious. I don’t go into huge detail.

9. Do the feature.

10. Collapse internally if you’ve done it right. In the first case, it took me about six months to get back into the swing of writing again; I had to clear my head of the work and its themes. I’ve already posted something new here since last night, just a silly trifle, just to show myself that I could, but I do anticipate some fallout in the coming weeks.

The Rationale:

The rationale behind the rip up reading is two fold.

First and foremost, it is to create a heightened, ritualized sense of the fundamentally ephemeral nature of a live performance. (Hence, the secrecy beforehand and the volunteer, the no recording, etc. It’s a ritual process and requires ritual boundaries to work.) To emphasize that these moments between poet and audience are irreproducible, and that no amount of chapbook reading, video viewing, or listening to a recording can truly recapture what happens in the moment of the night, and that we need to seize the moment and give it our attention — and that goes for perfomer and audience.

Second, it’s to illustrate the importance of being willing to bring it all out there and then leave it all onstage — both for poet and audience. By its very nature, if you want to do this right, you have to deliver a set of work that has blood in it — personal, revealing work that stretches your own boundaries as writer and as performer. If you’re going to do this, you can’t bring weak shit up there to be destroyed. It has to hurt you to see it go, or letting it go means nothing at all. The audience needs to recognize that hurt in you without pitying you — a fine line to walk.

Why did I include poems that weren’t destined to be ripped up in both cases? To create an entrance out of and an exit back into the "real world"outside the ritualized space of the night. To give people something to hang onto in a more tangible way than just in their heads. Touchstones. Beyond that…let’s just say it seemed like the right way to do it. Not everything is subject to rational thought.

Why Manchester?

A few months ago, I went up to the Bridge to see Trevor Byrne-Smith feature, and subsequently saw Bill MacMillan’s feature back in February. In both cases, I was struck by the enthusiasm of the regulars, and sensed that there was a sort of community there that I hadn’t seen in the area for a while — a young, diverse, hungry group of poets making their own scene, absorbing lessons learned from touring poets, and pushing each other to find their own voices and make them the best they could possibly be.

It reminded me of the best days of the Worcester scene. There was little of the jaded, careerist feeling I get in some older scenes I’ve been to.

When Mark Palos asked me to feature there, I heard the word "rip-up" in my head (much to my surprise). I knew it was right. I think I started working on the poems that night when I got home.

I am honored to have been able to do it there. I am not sure I’ll ever do it again…but I said that last time, too. If the occasion warrants and it seems right, maybe in another ten years…


The same in both features.

The introduction and explanation garnered gasps and shock.

You could hear a pin drop in the room as each poem began. No chatter during the poems. Total attention to the moment.

Afterwards…gratitude. That was the big one. Anger, too…in some cases. Not a bad anger, just a "oh, God, don’t rip that one up!!!!" now and again. But it wasn’t a deep anger, more a frustration at having the pieces disappear into the ether.

And then it was done. And now, we all move on…

Addendum — The Aftermath:

When I first did this, I was unprepared for how much havoc the set would wreak on my writing.  I didn’t do anything for several weeks, and when I did, I found that everything was a shadow of the ripped-up poems.  It took about six months to get them out of my system and get back on track.

I was prepared for that to be the same this time, so I took precautions.

First off, I did that Thirty Poems in Three Days stunt at the beginning of April at least in part to get myself into training to write on any subject I chose at any time — sort of strength training to maintain the muscles that keep me in control of my work and not let it control me.  It was a huge help — not many of those poems were keepers, but they were at the least serviceable, and they kept me sharp while I completed the rip-up set.

Second, I didn’t use the set as a psychic bloodletting.  While they were True, and personally revelatory, I used a different thought process in writing them, creating a unifying set of images that made me focus more on Craft than on Voice.  It was a good decision.  (By the way, if you want to comment on the set because you were there, please don’t refer to the specifics of the individual poems, ok?  I’d like them to remain out there in our memories.)

I’ve recovered already to some degree, having turned out four poems in the last two days.  Not all are good, but at least two feel like I’m back in the saddle. 

By the way, I’ve received a couple of backchannel notes from folks interested in trying this.  I’ll be glad to talk to anyone, but please keep it backchannel to preserve the secrecy, ok?

I’ll let others weigh in. Thanks to all who participated in this. I am deeply, deeply grateful to Mark and the Slam Free Or Die community, and to all who came out to see this evening. More than you could ever know.