A Poem

Last Sunday I gave a poetry reading for the first time in possibly 20 years. As odd as it sounds to say “in 20 years” it sounds almost as strange to say “I gave” one.” A writer “gives” a reading the way we “give” testimony or an explanation, I suppose, but really I accepted an invitation to read on a bill with a handful of writers. A few of them had heard and read some of my original work at retreats and parties. I knew they were very good at this themselves. I don’t consider myself serious at it, so what did I have to give?

Wait, back up. Yes, sometimes, at parties I attend, poetry readings break out! Usually between the coffee and bourbon. It can be a real drag if you’re not in the mood, like when someone shows up with a guitar. But magic too. Like being kissed when you didn’t ask for it, it can be the wrong thing, or the absolutely right thing.

What are we really doing when we attend our friends’ readings? Lending emotional support? Trying to size up their literary pedigree and substance? Shopping for books?! Or just trying to scramble the running narrative in our heads for an hour by tuning in to a few different voices?

“All of the above” works just fine as an answer, but I hereby give everyone I know permission to blow off every reading I ever give, if they are contemplating attending just to show their support. Life is short, and nice guys are plentiful. I’ll cut to the point:

My rules for what makes a good a reading: One, more than one person on the bill, unless it’s Seamus Heaney himself. Two, some sauce to loosen people up, but it must be early enough in the evening that the real corkers aren’t drunk yet. Three and most importantly, an escape plan for those who’d rather tune it out.

This last rule also applies to musical venues, the best of which all have a room where there is no music, where you can have a conversation without being rude.   If you don’t like the performance, no hard feelings, there’s a bar right over there.

I can see getting hooked on the immediacy of the poetic fix. It gets written, and as soon as that day you either read it or hear it. No giving notes, no  waiting for someone to re-read it before they get back to you about it, no speculation about what changes would persuade a big fish to pass it along to a bigger fish. Just metaphor, simplicity, clarity.

HAIR DYE

I can see now from my low perch, on

the last remaining orange seat, the

impossibly black, shoeshine black, vinyl

L.P.-colored black hair, above

the wrinkled face of the Chinese man

who followed me onto the D train

that passes through two out of three

of this city’s Chinatowns.

Your shoes, old man, tell me that

your toes bump the bottom edge of

a retail display case all day. Each time

you walk sideways to fetch a sample of

pork chops or necklaces or wrist watches

the stainless steel corner grazes

the leather on your feet, and

you let the cowskin absorb the hard

indifference of a city looted by mobs

with twenty dollar bills for sticks,

and Visa cards for pitchforks.

You’re only twenty years older than me.

Your wife, or your seamstress, if she stood

this close, would speak up in her way, her

resigned grimace at not finding a seat

would turn my way when my hips jerk to signal

that I am ready to stand any time,

and she would have my seat before the doors close.

So sensitive, though, is men’s vanity,

so shameful to admit that it even

exists, our eyes flit. Mosquitoes

in fear of resting in one place,

they glance from shoes to newspapers

to black, black hair. You proudly stand

for twenty more minutes you could

have sat rattling your bunion-

bejeweled feet, like a tambourine.

What do you think?

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