Monday 5 April 2010
Me and Maria got to the bar that supposedly put on poetry events, it was a dark Brooklyn night and no one knew what we were talking about when we said “we’re here for the poetry” in fact, the bouncer outside looked at us like we offended him, “POETRY!? nah man!” he scoffed. We decided to go in and have a drink anyway. We got a lot of curious looks from the people in the bar, we certainly stuck out, my bronzy mustard skin and Maria’s Pilipino features were carried loudly among the dominant black crowd. Most women had angels, flowers and names like “Daze-E” or “Shawty” tattooed on their arms or chest. They also had weave in their hair, wide gold looped earrings and bellies that hung down too much to be a pregnancy, we could have been in Seven Sisters or Wood Green back in London. It was someone’s birthday, me and Maria sat at the bar as a cake came out and everyone sang Stevie Wonder’s funky ‘Happy Birthday’ genius, the vibe was contagious and even me and Maria stood up, clapped our hands and sang Happy Birthday to the strangers at the table, we got a few head nods and took our seats with the complete feeling of acceptance.
“Wow New York, your poetry is as big as your buildings”
The crowd whooped and clapped, I had just been called to the stage, I was on Marcus Garvey Boulevard. The venue had a chess chequered floor and dimmed lights generating intimacy. The audience seating was scatted but filled to capacity (about 60-75) I was dazzled by the poets that got up before me and changed my mind about which poem to perform four times, throughout this trip Joshua tells me my best two poems are “my dad poem and my ‘hit me’ poem” but the ‘Hit Me’ poem seemed too delicate considering I’ve been asked to “never perform that poem in public again” so I played it safe with my dad poem (Not For The Dead) and it went down alright, Josh gets up and kills it as usual.
Afterwards, a poet called “Jon Sands” is announced, he walks onto the stage with the cheeky smirk of a precious infant with secret knowledge, the crowd transfixed before his jaw even flinched, a smooth and genius crowd engaging technique… “DAD HAS A PENIS TOO!” he yells “HIS PENIS IS MUCH LARGER THAN MY PENIS, HIS BODY IS LARGER THAN MY BODY, HIS PENIS WOULD LOOK RIDICLIOUS ON MY BODY!” the audience laughed and cringed at the same time as Josh poked my ribs, and muttered “and you were scared of doing your piece” I laughed and shook my head, in fact I probably continued these motions through Jon Sand’s entire set, I was witnessing one of the best all round performers/ writers I’d ever seen, the guy was electric and gave a performance that managed to stay with me. He had balls, passion and his poetry was sharp and filled with the sly kick of sudden heart attacks.
A poet called Chris Slaughter got up and did a terrifying poem called ‘Blood Line’ about two guys in a street fight – “every time (a fist or a kick) landed the crowd howled as if they were looking at two moons” woah! I must also give an honorable mention to a poet who had me spell bound with a story about the future self when your present self is plunged to despair and how the future self that got through your present hardship comes to you to comfort you through the process of pain, and how you’d feel in that moment, to have that connection as if you were your own God” … ugh, I cannot do it justice, just trust me, it was amazing… unfortunately I can’t remember his name.
My initial expectation of New York or even American Spoken Word performances was that they were going to be great performers with weaker writing, I was wrong, very wrong, New York’s Spoken Word artist carry a standard alien to the UK. Poetry in general holds greater appreciation, which is shameful considering the UK produced Shakespeare, Keats, Blake, Wilde, Byron and even Chaucer.
Spoken Word artists make it onto daytime and prime time TV (HBO, Comedy Central etc) as well as having Def Poetry Jam to aspire to as well as the National Slams, poetry is referenced on the walls of most subway stations, the pavements leading towards NY State Library have poems and quotations by Emily Dickinson among others graven into them on bronze plates, there is a strong community of poets and many weekly poetry and performance workshops are held, Spoken Word/poetry is the hustle of many, all the poets in the higher ranks sell merchandise rather well at their shows, venues such as the NYrican poets café and The Bowery are huge theatre venues dedicated to Spoken Word poetry.
I spoke to poet legend ‘Tshaka Campbell’ about this and he helped me put it into perspective “the poetry in NY is different and intense, the UK for the most part is still only interested in the entertainment side of poetry and there is much much more” I agreed.
Something I found interesting was not only was there similarities between the areas of London and New York, there was also similar characters, I went to a poetry venue which resembled The Poetry Café in Covent Garden, just bigger, I noted how professional the lighting was, a small, slightly elevated stage with a mic in a spot light is simple but very effective, it was called the ‘Cornelia Street Café’
This venue was indeed just like Tuesday night at London’s Poetry Café’, I think there was a London equivalent of every poet that got up and read, I mean in terms of form, style, voice etc it was quite surprising, I think I’ll sway from judgments and name dropping but if you haven’t been to the Poetry Café’ in Covent Garden you typically listen to about 40 poets with 5 minutes each and an average 35 of them will think their audience is either a shrink with a caring ear or a lump of meaningless matter that doesn’t matter more than their delightful poetry.
Anyway, Joshua had his video recorder out and captured possibly the most contrived, pretentious performance poetry I’ve ever seen in my life! I refer to this poet as “the awful one”. I will get him to upload that video as my description will not do it justice. There was a poet who was up before “the awful one” who was telling an amusing story about a car crash that changed his life and almost crippled him and his father.
“as our lungs shrieked and impact threw me and my father through the window screen, we lay bloodily…”
A bell rang and the female host walked to the stage and said “I’m sorry we have to move on” it was so abrupt; the poor guy was approaching a climax in a painful story of his life. He smiled awkwardly, “ok thank you” he said and hobbled off stage probably in the same manner he hobbled from the car crash… bless him.
I got good feedback from a few audience members after the show, I tell you, I can’t stress that enough, if you go to a poetry night and you like a poet, please tell them, "most poets die without compliments." - Niall O'Sullivan.