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Journal, Day Four

By Patricia Smith

So . . . did anybody write a ghazal yesterday?

I coulda woulda shoulda, but I didn’t. Instead, I was reflecting upon an absolutely wonderful Tuesday evening out on the town, reading at the inimitable Bowery Poetry Club in New York.

For those of you who live in towns that aren’t here, please be aware that there are roughly 8,356 ½ places to see/read/hear poetry at any given hour. Every bar and bookstore has a secluded, slightly moldy corner reserved for sonneteers, slammers, and versifiers. The Bowery touts a sunup to sundown roster of rhyme. Streetcorner pundits abound, especially at this time of year, when poetry is the only thing keeping so many of us from a determined waltz into oncoming traffic. Yusef Komunyakaa reads at KGB, for free. Young boys in drooping denims heft lyrics larger than they are. Storekeepers chirp in rhyme. Martín Espada rips it at Acentos in the Bronx. Look, there’s Sharon Olds! Even the waiters at Applebee’s occasionally break out in spontaneous verse, spouting couplets between the quesadillas grande and nachos nuevos.

Poems scribbled on cocktail napkins, $50 bills, taxi receipts, journal pages, and sweaty forearms all qualify for the light of day. You can’t take two steps in this city without stumbling into a stage and a hot mic.

On stage, you can hone your real-world voice. You can learn how to lift that voice over the machinations of a raucous drunk or a whirring cappuccino machine. You can lock eyes with an audience member and know, without a doubt, that the hours you’ve spent toiling in virtual isolation—revising, rearranging, sweating the poems out—were well worth it. Most importantly, you can find a reason to keep going.

On Tuesday, my reason to keep going was waiting for me at the Bowery.

Roughly a year ago, I wrote a poem temporarily titled “34,” a tribute to the 34 nursing home residents left to die while Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. It wasn’t necessarily a poem I wanted to write—in fact, I banged it out in a kind of fever, desperate to placate those 34 insistent voices, each rhythmed with its own terror. Come. See. The darkness, whimpering, water’s rude whisper. The floodwaters rushing through the rooms, swallowing lives, creeping relentlessly toward the roof.

When “34” was finished, I fooled myself into thinking that I had done what was demanded of me. I slapped a padlock on the poem and hoped that it would rest behind the door I’d closed on it. But I was nowhere near done. What followed—squelching other projects, disrupting my home life, keeping me up long into many nights—were other stories from Katrina searching for a way into the air. There were families forced to bury their own after graveyard workers declared themselves overwhelmed. Ninety-one-year-old Ethel Mayo Freeman wanted to talk about being left to rot in her wheelchair under the ‘Nawlins sun. Voodoo priestesses had theories about how it all went wrong. Even Katrina, the bitch herself, came alive. Even she had things to say.

Have you even been thrown head-first into a project that you didn’t ask for, one that seemed to choose you, one that’s at best vaguely defined? Even calling the Katrina poems a “project” seemed somewhat exploitative, as if I’d simply hit on a hot topic and decided to roll with it. Only after realizing that I’d written over 30 poems did I begin calling it a “manuscript,” because somewhere along the line—probably immediately after being told “I wouldn’t waste my time . . . people are forgetting about Katrina already”—I knew that I wanted this to be something solid, something that could be held in the hand and passed on to other hands.

Because people want to, and don’t want to, remember. They don’t want to, and want to, forget.

Those of us who take the stage with our work are pretty adept at “reading” rooms. We can walk into a poetry venue and immediately begin to formulate a set, deciding which pieces we’re going to read based on a strong but inexplicable vibe. Taken into consideration: noise level, the availability of alcohol, lighting, seat arrangement, the presence or absence of a mic stand and podium, the enthusiasm of the evening’s host, the ratio of newcomers to regulars in the audience, whether you’re feeling relaxed or stressed, how folks are dressed, age/gender/racial mix, even the news of the day. For instance, you probably wouldn’t read the same poems on the day Britney Spears dumped K-Fed as you would on the day two planes took down the World Trade Center.

On Tuesday at the Bowery, as I sat through the open mic that precedes the feature, I decided to abandon my plan to debut a “set” of the Katrina poems, reading them for the first time in a rough chronological order, beginning with the voice of the burgeoning storm. I decided against this because a) the night began with a darkly humorous dirge by Shappy, the Bowery’s deft-handed bartender and self-proclaimed resident nerd, and the place roared with laughter; b) it’s almost Christmas, and I didn’t want to be accused of “downing” the season; and c) I was pretty damned scared.

Writing these poems wasn’t simply a matter of getting them out, tapping the Print button and moving on to the next thing. If I couldn’t transport everyone in that room to New Orleans, couldn’t pummel them with a whipping rain, couldn’t trap them in a room in that nursing home waiting for the water to overwhelm them, then I’d done nothing at all. The point was not death. The point was resurrection.

I reverted to my original plan after someone (hi, Jessica Elizabeth!) read her own charged, confrontational poem, inspired by hearing “34” at another venue. I realized that this was not a time to surrender to the room, but to try and change its energy. Sometimes no matter what your reading of a room tells you, you have to speak the poem that’s first in your throat.

And poets know that you can’t wait until people come up to you with response and feedback. You have to know while you stand there behind that crackling mic. You have to know as soon as the words hit the air whether they have weight and worth. You have to spit those words out into the dark and pray that some heat comes back to you.

Here’s a secret: What I listened for was a small, involuntary sound. It could be called a moan. It could be the loud release of a held breath. What it meant was that at least one person in the Bowery Poetry Club on Tuesday night heard something they’ll never be able to shake, like 34 frantic whispers in a room.

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, December 21st, 2006 by Patricia Smith.