The Fresh Hell of a Poetry Recital
Have I Mentioned Before I Am Afraid Of Bongos?
Have I mentioned before that I am afraid of bongos? Not some irrational fear, I don’t have nightmares of wooden drums chasing me through darkened corridors, their empty maws snapping shut, the threat of drawing me into their tympanic hell. No, sadly it’s nothing that creative, although now, hmm. Now the writer in me is seeing all sorts of scenarios where they come alive to wreak their vengeance on unsuspecting laps everywhere.
All around the world goateed boys and pretentious women scream in pain. Their black berets and matching scarves dropped amongst piles of four-dollar coffee cups. The drums, secretly waiting for that one last strike upon their membrane rise up at once.
But I digress, not that I am ever known for that.
No bongo drums raise fear in a more complete, more soulful, and terrifyingly horrible way. They themselves are not scary; it’s the people who generally have them that scare the hell out of me.
You will probably never hear a conversation such as this.
“Ah, hello Phillip.”
“Winston, what a pleasant surprise! And how is Marcia?”
“Splendid. Now did I hear you have joined the Philharmonic?”
“Yes, quite right old son.”
“Wonderful, congratulations. All those years of dedication have resolved themselves.”
“Yes and woe to those that thought bongos were never going to make it.”
See, maybe I am being unfair but bongo and intellectualism seem pretty far apart. Not saying there are no smart people with bongos, just saying the umm likelihood is lessened somewhat.
So invited as I was to a poetry recital, and requested to read some of my work set me into a flurry of activity. Over several days I selected and balanced as best I could a selection of my work. I considered different ways I wanted to bind them for ease of reading and use. I printed test copies, checked clarity, spelling, and a dozen other details. Chose my clothes carefully, a nice dark blue suit, a dark maroon shirt, no tie, it is poetry after all, but I do want to be presentable.
Basically what I am getting at is this. I take writing seriously. I consider it not only to be something I must do and have to do and love doing. I also consider it to be a profession and being as professional as I can, I want to do it justice.
Yeah, umm how’s that working out for me you might ask. Let me tell you.
Not as well as one might hope, you see, try as I might I don’t find groups of professional writers or semi-professional writers, or for that matter, dedicated amateurs who want to learn and grow. No, I get to meet an entirely different yet common species.
The coffee house is small, personal, and quite pleasant. The invitation was received and the travel arrangements made. My days of preparation were about to come to a head as I enter into another haven of those in love with the written word.
A small group of about eight women is arranged within chairs, overstuffed, outdated, the fabric worn and disheveled. The chairs were not doing so good either. Looking from one curiosity to the next I wondered if in fact, this was a group intent on expanding the arts or, as I first thought, a selection of homeless women who might rob and kill me for any number of reasons.
Now, this is not a wealth issue, it is not even a taste in style or fashion issue. This is more a ‘Could you have worn something other than the clothes you were using to clear out the basement? Lovely outfit Madame, does it come in outside wear as well?’
The only giveaway that they are here for the arts is the small collection of self-published chapbooks that sit on the table as holy relics. The covers all speak of darkness, death, loss, great terrors, and pains that all must suffer through if, like me, you are willing to read the prose contained within.
I did. Woe is me.
I need to digress again for a moment. At what point, and please if you know tell me, but, at what point did telling pointless and un-lyrical short stories become acceptable as poetry or prose? There is no balance, no meter, not even the hell of the bad rhyme. Just a short pointless story, maybe a metaphor or two, and that’s that.
I walked down the road
I saw Carol
Hi, Carol, I said
She said Hi back and told me
She needed to get vegetables from the store
I got vegetables once
Now that is not a real example, but it is pretty damn indicative of a lot of the stuff in the books. Why, mother of god, why?
I have made my introductions to the authoresses there. I have chosen a seat and smiling gently I try my best to listen and learn and just see how the evening will go. I may be sarcastic and cynical a lot of the time, but, truth be known I am an idiot who flits between hopes.
I might be wrong. These might be gems as yet unknown. Within each one of these women may lie secrets and glories and tales that will leave me weeping. One of them in her old patterned top may open her mouth, and something that sounds as if it was written by Susan Culver might spill out. I doubt it, but, as I said I live in hope. They may surprise me and Oh what a wondrous thing that would be. I am quite excited as I sit and wait.
And now I am wondering what the hell we are waiting for. This isn’t Carnegie Hall. It’s not even Monty Hall for that matter, it’s a coffee shop in the unfashionable end of the city. No hordes of desperate for literature types will show up. I doubt the Pulitzer people are circling the block looking for parking. Let’s get on with it.
So more conversation and then finally, a buzz fills the air, well not exactly a buzz, more a low gurgle. Our hostess, rising from the comfort of her chair wanders to the stage and climbs aboard.
My excitement builds. Herein lies all my hopes and dreams. Frustrations vanish. Here is soon to be an opportunity to hear these dulcet tones, these magical phrases that set the room alight. Soon colours will paint the very air and I will be transported in that way that only the delicacy and honesty and glory of words can move you. She has finished her first introduction and I am almost buzzing with anticipation.
A young black woman has taken the stage. She smiles, softly at first, then it changes, it grows. This is no smile of the happy or the poetic. This is a smile of the mad, the deranged. Anyone smiling that broadly, that wholly, is about to open fire with a machine gun. Why is she smiling like that, her whole face is opened like some mask of dementia. Her arms move out from her sides, her body starts to bend and move. Mother of god it’s that scene from aliens isn’t it? Her chest is about to blow open and I’m going to have little critters dash across and knock my coffee off! As my fear and loathing of this caricature mask is reaching fever pitch she does not explode.
And this my friends is the first disappointment of the evening.
Instead, she begins to do this strange talking, moving, arms akimbo, sweep about with grand gestures performance thingy. I look about, maybe the others will burst into laughter. I will hear someone say “Oh Betty you are so funny, now quit pissing about and get on with it.”
But they don’t
They are all smiling. They all look entranced, entrenched, enraptured, and a lot of other en words. I am confused, afraid, alone. I know a door sits forty feet behind me. Can I make it there in time? I feel like I might be in a horror flick. If I turn my back and begin to run they will take me down like some gazelle on the Serengeti? This isn’t poetry, it’s not even prose, I’m not sure what it is. It’s like some jive, hip-hop, rap, dancey, singey, thingy and I’m not really….ohhhhh now I get it. She must be a kid’s performer. This is some act she does for little kids, preschoolers or the mentally deficient, or maybe even parliamentarians.
That’s what this is. I begin to relax. Her exaggerated movements, the insane look, the wide-eyed, wide-toothed smile. This is for children. Maybe as a punishment, maybe as a reward, what am I to know? It all makes so much sense now.
See I assumed obviously incorrectly that this was poetry etcetera just for adults and therefore the language and mannerisms would be adult-based. This is obviously for children. What the hell did she just say? Ok, maybe this isn’t for children. She’s talking about getting laid now?
What did I miss here? It’s the same movements, the same smile and all the same actions except now she seems to be talking about her umm, ok, what the hell is this and how do I make it stop? I’m sitting in a café with eight well over middle-aged women who are all becoming quite engrossed in this young woman’s description of being stuffed like a turkey on the twenty-fourth of December. They are engrossed, I am grossed.
I like women. Ok I like them a lot. I like sex. These are good things. This, however, is not maybe the best venue or methodology. The movement from what I first thought was a kids play or something to Debbie does a baseball bat, well, it’s throwing me for a loop. It would be like the Disney S&M hour or The Wiggles get naked. It’s just not right.
It reminded me of when my niece was a little girl at a dance recital. Her instructor who was now twenty years and two hundred pounds past her prime decided to join in with these tiny seven-year-olds and dance a solo. She appeared clad only in a purple bodysuit and moved with, well, the grace of me across the stage and in between these waifs. It was the dance of the large clumsy grape. She leaped about and jiggled and thundered like some giant fruit. I have never been in a theatre in my life and felt such an overwhelming sense of wrongness. I kept waiting for her to stop and eat one of the kids like Godzilla.
But I digress, as you know I am wont to do. Eventually, that dance and this one ended. Freed was I from this episode of Barney teaches stripping and I clapped with the rest of the attendees. What else was I supposed to do? Gouging my eyes out and screaming in horror seemed just slightly an over-reaction, just slightly, so I clapped.
I listened and smiled politely as the gathered gushed and emoted and slobbered and lolled about in admiration and praise for this piece of performance art. They gushed, I smiled, I am pretty sure I was smiling, I may have actually stroked out at this time and was trapped in a rictus grin, but, I think I was smiling.
Our hostess praised her mightily and then began anew. She introduced the next artist, a woman with more musical talent than all the ages combined. A visionary, a leader, and an all-encompassing national treasure.
I looked about hoping to see Yo-Yo Ma in drag or something, anything, anyone. Instead, I saw her.
She had breasts like two artillery shells waiting to be fired. Gigantic, protruding extensions of her body that looked ready to be launched towards an unsuspecting target. These were supported only by what I assume to be a brassiere made from carbon fibre and a prodigious belly.
She also had a bongo.
I could feel the terror building in me. I knew that no good would come of this. Never in the history of poetry can a bongo be included without hellfire following.
I was not to be disappointed.
This mistress of the musical arts, this divinely inspired creature was going to sing some of her poetry to us, with bongo accompaniment. Inside I died a little.
She began to sing and I was immediately struck by her ability to change keys seemingly at random. From lows to highs, from flats to sharps. I tried to discern a pattern, to see if maybe my simplistic views of harmony and music were merely missing this newfound religion. I listened to see if the words would transport me to places where the music was escaping me.
I strove to find understanding, I hoped to see clarity, and barring clarity, at least if a small section of the ceiling would collapse and finish me off.
It didn’t happen. Instead, I rediscovered God. I had lost my faith in a benevolent creator who watches over us. I had cast aside such nonsense and decided on a different course. But that divine hand was present that day.
Although she had mounted the stage with reams of paper, looseleaf, notebooks, bongo, a wooden frog thing you hit with a stick, and a bloody tambourine. And can someone explain to me before I go too much further how one might play three percussion instruments at the same time by yourself? Anyway, even armed as she was, she only got through two or three hundred hours, or so it seemed before mercy shined divinely.
She looked up, struck silent, and said “I’ve lost my place, I’ll just stop here.”
The room was filled with groans and at first, I thought it was only the sound of gas escaping from my attempt at ritual suicide. It was the rest of those present begging her not to stop. This was of course while I silently begged her not to continue.
Undaunted, and far too late to be properly daunted, she dismounted with her musical menagerie and returned to her seat. Our hostess introduced me and thanked me for coming such a long way. I went to the podium, sat down my carefully printed and arranged works, and looked out over my audience.
I knew I had an opportunity to run. There was an emergency exit just behind me, a window half-opened nearby. I could launch myself through either and escape into the darkness and preferred the safety of a pitch-black alleyway in the middle of a city. I could not, and for several reasons.
First I was afraid that any attempt to escape would result in me being taken down. Secondly dammit, I had come here with poetry, I was going to read some poetry. I smiled, introduced myself, and then with tongue in cheek, with a bold attempt to show how I felt I spoke.
“Well good evening. I’m not sure really what to do. I neither sing nor dance, I don’t perform, I only came here with poetry I have written.
I was hoping for at least a “Shut up smartass” or something. Instead, I was told that it was ok, I should just read anyway. I wondered if I could kill myself by swallowing my tongue. I was also struck by the notion that I should read everything while doing a soft shoe shuffle. In those moments between being told that being just a poet at a poetry reading was ok, and beginning to speak I thought all sorts of things.
I debated reading everything to the tune of Oklahoma or maybe lying down on the stage and screaming it out at the top of my lungs. I reasoned that at this point I could have read while peeing into a cup and gotten away with it.
Instead, I just read. I thought it went quite well. The poems I had chosen were good, they painted a nice picture. I could see by the reactions I was getting that my choice of merely writing and speaking was having its proper effect. When I finished my intended collection I was asked to continue. I read a few more.
There was silence. Not the embarrassed or horrified silence but, I thought, a more dignified one. I had brought poetry to a poetry recital. I was feeling quite good about it.
I had lowered the volume and frantic nature of what I saw as a bit of a disturbed evening and I offered only carefully formulated words and phrases and images. My satisfaction was short-lived. From the back of the room, the silence was broken by the young black woman who called out, contrary to what the others had been saying, “Just one more than someone else.”
I looked up and made eye contact with her. She looked behind her as if it was someone else who had said it. That would have been fine except as she was sitting at the back she was now staring at the wall. I read my last piece, dismounted the stage, and returned to my seat. I thanked my audience and then returned to my coffee drinking.
Thinking the evening was over as I had been told there were only three of us performing; I relaxed and looked forward to my leaving. Our hostess rose again, thanked everyone, and then proceeded to invite another national treasure to the stage. I wish I knew who the hell these national treasures were. I had never heard of them before.
This woman rose to the stage with many protestations on how she had not come to perform or speak, but only as a witness to the events. That said she did carry a prodigious amount of papers for someone out walking their cat.
We entered into a stage best described as “what the hell is going on”.
She required a seat, a place for her papers, a lamp, a drink, a relocation, a redescription, a muttering, a praising and then finally, she spoke.
It was something about elephants. I’m not sure what exactly it was, what I do know for sure was it was long. So very very long. It was elephantine in its length. She droned in a monotone a strange mixture of facts and phrases. Neither a poem nor a dissertation it was a collection of words where ‘elephant’ kept popping up.
I heard a voice. It was a far-away voice. It said, “Craig, you are asleep.” It was my voice, at least it was one of the ones inside my head. I was asleep. Sometime during the seventy-five hours, she spoke about elephants I had decided to enter a coma. I am still quite angry with myself for coming out of it.
I looked about to see if anyone had noticed my descent into that little death, that mercy of unconsciousness. If they had they were too polite to notice. The woman reading looked up hesitated and said “I’m just going to skip this bit.” Then she wandered off stage.
I felt both cheated and relieved. I sort of wanted to know if there was an eventual point to this. I was also afraid that there wasn’t and had she not stopped I might still be there.
Now I was certain we would be freed. I had read, I had listened, for the love of god what else do you want from me. Let my people go, or well hell, just get out of the way and let me go.
The woman beside me is coaxed to the stage. She rises unwillingly but she still bloody well rises. The entire time she bleats protestations that she is not here to perform, she is not prepared, she does not want to do it.
THEN SIT THE HELL DOWN
But she doesn’t
That would have saved me from what is about to follow.
She announces that since she is not ready she will just channel something. I am not sure what the hell that is supposed to mean. No one told me there was a poetry channel, I would have subscribed, or killed myself, either or.
But we are all safe. She is not a poet. She umm, well, not sings, umm sort of chants, moans or something. She did have an amazing set of pipes. She had great tone control, she had wonderful volume and clarity of voice. She just didn’t have any words.
Eyes closed she huffed and puffed and, well, whatever the hell it was for seven and a half years. I was using the spoon from my coffee to gouge my ears out. Not that she sounded bad, she just didn’t have any words.
Ok, I am confused. I always figured that poetry would have words with it. I mean even a few, give us a teaser at least. Yes you have an amazing voice, but you need to move beyond the channeling and into the speaking.
Ok, she is coming off the stage. Please god let the bad people stop, let me go, I’m not asking for much, just the opportunity, oh Christ!
I’ve seen this one before. Twenty-two years old. White, young, pretty. The girl has words, you hear them in between the noises she makes. There might be something there. The only problem is somewhere along the line this little bit of whitebread wonder has decided she is a fifty-year-old back woman beatnik.
She doesn’t read, she yells. In-a-staccato-burst-of-artificial-anger-and-sharp-too-loud-argh. If she would just read, maybe softly, gently, she would be heard a lot more clearly. But she doesn’t do that. She hollers, she attacks the mike and all the while smiling sweetly.
I want to leap up to her, make her stop, explain that she cannot be an angry black sixty-year-old woman because, well, SHE ISNT! I really feel the urge to hit her with the bongo, and that’s too bad. Mostly because I think she might actually have some talent if she would just stop yelling.
She has, oh merciful god thank you, and screw you for not making me deaf earlier, made me listen to the whole thing, yeah, great, thanks.
Our hostess has returned, and oh no, it’s her turn. “I want to tell you a poem I wrote for my mother”
“My Jewish mother”
“Who I never got along with and I am still sort of angry at”
Ok, really who didn’t see that one coming?
A new monologue. Seven thousand hours of ‘mom sucks’. Listen here is a simple rule of the universe. If your parents aren’t screwed in the head and ruining your life it’s only because you are the one doing it to them. Someone is screwed, it’s you or them or maybe a sibling, or, more likely, a combination of all.
I listen. I’m still not sure what the hell she was going on about. In hindsight, wait, no, that’s a lie. I still don’t care. I just wanted her to end, to free me, to stop.
I could have left any time, really, but, I don’t want to be rude so I stayed. I am however getting pretty goddamn near the end of my rope.
“Now to close the evening,” she says mercilessly teasing me, torturing my hopes, “I want to finish with a song I wrote”
Ok, I’m gonna hold you to it. One song and if you go a second longer I am murdering everyone here.
She proceeds to explain how she took something by Verdi and corrected it.
Ok, are you referring to one of the greatest composers ever or is this Fred Verdi who lives next door and eats cat food? Cause if it ain’t him, if you are correcting Giuseppe Verdi then you really need your head examined and preferably by an axe.
“But please join me and sing along. It’s ok that you won’t know the words, just follow the tune.”
I hate the fact we are not allowed to carry guns in Canada.
Now imagine this scene. This woman who sings as well as I tap dance begins to sing a modified version of one of Verdi’s arias. At least I think that’s what it was. I am now encircled by all the other women who are trying to follow along.
Here’s the rub though.
No one in the room knows the F-ING tune she is singing. So I have all these women, eyes closed, all humming along or open mouthed singing, or chanting, channeling, grunting, farting or bellowing the closest they can come to the tune.
I am at this point waiting for the guy from “Just for Laughs” to appear and tell me I am on hidden camera.
Oh how I will laugh
Then I will kill them all.
But that does not happen. The music stops, the stage is vacated and no one goes near it.
An orgy of self-congratulation follows while I smile and move with remarkable swiftness towards the safety of the night.
I am older now, much, much older. Most of my internal organs were damaged as they tried to kill themselves. I am mostly blind, deaf, and addled by the experience. Wandering the streets I was picked up twice by an ambulance. Both times the medics on board mistook my shell-shocked look for someone who had recently escaped a torture session with the inquisition.
I told them no, I was mostly ok, I had been to a poetry reading.
I will never look at a bongo player again like I did before!
Hilarious! Snaps fingers–
Thank you both so very much
This is almost 100% true
Great fun! I love your sense of humor. Sorry you had to suffer so terribly, but grateful for the laughs. This reminded me of a poetry slam I attended in New York in the early 90s- a gruesome event.
You are a true story-teller Craig. I hope writing this helped the pain of experiencing the evening from H E L L. I would have left!
thank you both