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My top three favorite poetry readings, like, ever! (Part I)
It’s hard to estimate how many poetry readings I’ve attended in my life, but it must be somewhere in the hundreds and hundreds. If I’ve been going to poetry readings regularly for eighteen years, and I’ve averaged about fifteen to twenty a year, that would put the total at around 300. That doesn’t sound right, especially since I have very little recall of at least 200 of these, but it’s a reasonable ballpark estimate. (I’m guessing I’ve seen double that many gallery and museum shows. Music concerts might be closer to 100.)
So it’s probably ridiculous to try to list my top three (plus a few more) poetry readings ever (and my apologies in advance to any sensitive friends), but here goes (in order of most memorable):
1) Kamau Brathwaite, Naropa Summer Writing Program, 1995. In the summer of 1995, my partner and I drove from Buffalo to Denver, flew from Denver to Seattle, took the bus from Seattle to Vancouver for a conference honoring Robin Blaser, got a ride back to Seattle, flew to San Francisco to do research for a few days, took a bus to Denver, flew to Mexico City, spent a couple days there, took a bus to Chiapas, visited for 3 1/2 weeks, went to villages and the ruins at Palenque, took a bus to Oaxaca, wandered around for a couple days, took a bus to Mexico City, stayed with friends for a few days, flew to Denver, drove up to Boulder, attended Naropa events for a week, drove back to Denver, drove to Ann Arbor, visited a friend for a couple days, drove back to Buffalo, car broke down on a massive skyway between Toronto and Buffalo, were towed the remaining miles into Buffalo. In the days when my life was on an academic schedule (undergraduate and graduate school), my summers usually went something like this. [Note to self: Get back on an academic schedule.]
Despite these various adventures and misadventures, one of the highpoints of the summer was a reading Brathwaite gave at the Boulder Theater. It used to be that Naropa had one big reading each summer at a high-end venue in Boulder that featured the most famous guest faculty. I think it was meant to serve as a big money-raiser, but the overhead eventually made this unfeasible. Brathwaite, who is notoriously elusive when it comes to teaching and reading invitations (the Buffalo Poetics Program tried to invite him up for years, to no avail), taught for a week at Naropa that summer and gave an absolutely incredible reading. He read, sang, chanted, intoned, and rapped out beats and melodies on the lectern with his knuckles and fingers. His reading was beautiful, historically saturated, political, and enchanting. I’ve seen him read since, and now have a couple recordings of him, but nothing comes close to the original experience. [Note to Naropa archive: Please make this reading available online.]
[Here’s a video from a reading he gave for the 2006 International Griffin Poetry Prize. Please bear with the unfortunate two-minute intro.]
This gives me a dubious excuse to list my three favorite concert experiences, and how I was never able to recapture their initial magic either. Number 1 would have to be the Butthole Surfers at a small club in Denver during my senior year of high school (in Cheyenne, Wyoming). This was the Butthole Surfers at the stunning height of their powers during the Locust Abortion Technician tour: two drummers; messy go-go dancer; highway accident films; strobe lights, pyrotechnics, and fog machines; Gibby Haynes wearing a skirt and singing through a bullhorn; no pauses between songs; extended versions of songs like “Sweat Loaf” and “Graveyard”; cops nervously standing outside. Wow! I was one of those kids who wore a lot of black toward the end of high school (you might have too if you spent your last couple years of high school in Cheyenne), which is why I shocked a few classmates when one day in April I showed up wearing a tan, orange, and green Butthole Surfers Rembrandt Pussyhorse t-shirt. And the day after that, and the day after that . . .
[Here’s a video promo for the Locust Abortion Technician tour that I remember seeing on MTV’s 120 Minutes back in the day. Unlike the Brathwaite video above, it gives a decent sense of what I’m trying to describe.]
Charles Bernstein once wrote that poetry should be at least as entertaining as television. (Bernstein and I may have somewhat diverging ideas about how poetry works, but I’ve learned a lot from him in terms of what it means for poetry to entertain [in the best sense of the word].) Even though I’m someone who loathes nostalgia, especially nostalgia for anything that occurred during a person’s adolescent and post-adolescent years, it’s one of my few aesthetic credos that poetry should be at least as engaging as a 1987 Butthole Surfers concert. Frequently it’s not.
I saw the Butthole Surfers again the next year at a larger venue, and it wasn’t nearly as great. Similarly, perhaps the second-best concert I ever saw was Yo La Tengo at their first weeklong series of Hanukkah gigs at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey in December of 2001. Absolutely amazing. I saw them during the same set of shows the next year, and wasn’t nearly as impressed. My third favorite concert might be Kahil El’Zabar Ritual Trio playing at a place in Buffalo called Shea’s Performing Arts Center: Kahil El’Zabar’s plaintive African thumb piano and insistent drums, combined with Ari Brown’s avant-sax, mixed with Malachi Favors’s earthy bass was mesmerizing and profound. (For honorable mentions that may in fact be top three favorites, see Part II [the Crash Worship concert that ended in a partial orgy in a basement in Denver doesn’t count; the next time I saw them, the cops broke up the show before it even started, proving how hard it is to go home again].)
But back to my favorite poetry readings . . .