Lil Patty Grows Up
A little more than a week ago, I was inching along MD-295 in a freakish snowshower, peering through a patch cleared by my struggling windshield wipers. It had taken me hours longer than I anticipated to get to D.C. from my home in New York—but, hey, anything for our art, right? I had little more than an hour to get to a reading in the basement of a restaurant in one of the Capitol’s trendiest ‘hoods, and I was edging toward frantic. I hate breathless arrivals. The short but frequent snow dumps stunned the traffic—by the time I got where I was going, the sidewalks were slick with ice, the wind felt like it was biting holes in my skin and every single parking space in D.C. was already stuffed with an apartment-sized SUV on bitch-ass rims.
After spying the venue and creeping around the block several times, I finally paid a shady character—arrogantly patrolling a lot the size of a postage stamp-- 20 bucks to babysit my Element. “You’d better lock up,” he said reassuringly. “Sometimes stuff happens.”
With minutes to spare, I tipped him a five so “stuff wouldn’t happen,” grabbed a postal box full of my books, hunkered down in my coat and skidded the three blocks to RFD’s Food and Drink, a blatant Friday’s/Applebee’s/Bennigan’s clone. There it was, finally, complete with the slate-gray lighting, blaring hippish soundtrack and chirpy “greeters”—Britney, Mariah, Amber, Becky, Megan, you know the type—just inside the double doors, anxious as all get-out to welcome you to your next dining experience. I could smell the glistening blubberburgers and fried vegetable blossoms the minute I stumbled inside.
“Where’s the reading?” I sputtered at Britney-Mariah-Amber-Becky-Megan. I had five minutes before I was officially late.
She grinned blandly, tossing her blunt, shining coif. “The poetry?” She paused, waiting for the meaning of that big ol’ three-syllable word to rise to the surface. “Oh, that’s been canceled.”
Canceled. If I’d been on a plane for as long as I’d been driving, I’d be in Europe.
Canceled. A reading that had been plotted and confirmed and reconfirmed for months.
Canceled. With no warning, and with what could only be described as a dismissive snort.
Why? Gee, I don’t know. Flip. Giggle. Anybody from the poetry reading here? Nope. Giggle. Wow, you came all the way from New York? Wow. Flip. Giggle.
Oddly, I remember one thought coming through loud and clear (immediately after the thought that involved my fist and Britney-Mariah-Amber-Becky-Megan’s cosmetically sculpted cheekbone), and that thought was:
I bet this never happens to Rita Dove.
And just like that, in the blink of an eye, I made a vow that felt like a weight being lifted from my shoulders: It will never happen to me again either.
How exactly had I come to that moment, cheeks burned by the wind, ice in my shoes, shoulder groaning with the weight of the books, unceremoniously turned away after hurtling across state lines for a reading in the bowels of a fry palace, a reading inconsequential enough to be canceled without warning, a reading that guaranteed monetary compensation soaring into the mid double digits?
When I came up (there I go, sounding like a weepy octogenarian, hand me my walker please) in the heady days of the poetry slam, there was the smell of revolution in the air. Defiantly, we read for scores. We didn’t need microphones, MFAs, good lighting or even the paper our poems were written on. We constantly broke the rules we set for ourselves. What we were doing was spontaneous, impassioned, confrontational and sexy. We were perfectly content on the bottom rung of the poetic ladder, reading our own odes to our own selves just for the glory of our voice joining other voices. We hopped in our cars and drove all night to find others just like us. We slept in back seats with springs poking through, on couches layered with cat hair, on pallets, on chilly back porches. We passed the hat at gigs, and sometimes we got gas money and sometimes we didn’t. (We were lucky if we even got the hat back.) We drank cheap beer, even cheaper wine, and everything we ate was quick-fried, ramen noodled, or wrapped in a soggy tortilla. It was rare to be officially paid for our readings (“Is that a check?”), and any gig that paid more than we shelled out for drinks that night was immediately suspect.
It didn’t matter if you were a penniless student or lucky enough to have a dependable nine-to-five. There was a selfless honor in taking the mic in those shoddy community rooms and cramped beer halls. We were pure, dammit, money didn’t mean a thang, and our poetry was changing the world.
Our poetry is still changing the world, but the world has managed to change along with it.
At 50, I am no longer physically suited for nomadic wanderlust. I crave a soft bed, decent meals and an honorarium that doesn’t come in a piggy bank. I want to know that the venue where I’m scheduled to read is going to be there when I arrive. I love the performance community that birthed and nurtured me, the competitions that sharpened my confidence, the people who became, and remain, my family. But those people have got to realize that I’m not the same giddy kid I was, content with a chair right up front, 30 minutes to spit rhyme and a paper cup of cut-rate chardonnay.
After six books, a couple of awards, coveted teaching jobs and a review of my latest book in Entertainment Weekly for Chrissakes, I believe I’ve worked hard enough to warrant gigs that are a little more than a date and a dream. I can still smell revolution—but it’s a faint intriguing whiff buried beneath dental bills, camp fees, gymnastics lessons, MFA invoices, impending mortgages--and the rent, which is so high we get a nosebleed just writing the check. That’s real life, which just gets more real and more insistent. Like so many others, I write poetry to keep it at bay.
I still did those gigs because that where my heart is. I love those dark, unpredictable rooms, the open mics, the wide eyes of a first-time reader, and those thick links between people that feels so much like love. And there are some places (Chicago, Boston, New York) with a particularly fierce clutch on my heart, where I will read, without ever asking why, because so much of me was born in those places. And I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for kids and schools. But I’m no longer a road warrior. I can’t drive five hundred miles for five ten dollar bills. I want to see some sign that time has passed, that my work has taken on worth and weight, that it has value. No more stiffing colleges or Carnegie Hall because a friend held a bake sale and decided to host a demo slam in her kitchen.
Last month in D.C., as I stood numb with rage, contemplating Britney-Mariah-Amber-Becky-Megan and weighing my (no) options, I suddenly knew that I had grown up, that a door in my life was closing, and that there is no shortage of principled poetic rebels poised to take my place in the trenches.
Now that we’re straight on that—c’mon, Rita, let’s go grab a burger.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall...