Yesterday evening, Oscar was one of the feature readers for the Poetry for the People Open Mic Summer Series at Berkeley City College. I’m glad I went, especially because I actually feel pretty cut off from this particular segment of the poetry population. I am accustomed to literary readings featuring mostly authors presenting books of very polished work, almost in recitation mode (this is the term I used in my response to Dwayne’s comment on performance). Certainly, this is my bad, for apparently limiting myself to the authorial presentation. I say “recitation” because of my own belief that when the book is published is when (for me) the editing and tweaking of the poem officially ends. And so we recite. Prior to book publication, no matter how many journals and anthologies the poem has been published in, it’s still fair game for editing, and the poetry reading is/can be a helpful editing tool.
Anyway, so the P4P open mic yesterday evening was like revisiting the poetry world I grew up in, in which young folks at various levels of their poetic development give it an earnest go at the mic, coming into explorations of figurative language and poetic form, balancing these elements with meaning, personal history, political content. Some are quite accomplished performers themselves, accustomed to public presentation, how to talk to to a room full of people, how to balance banter versus content. For me, a couple of notables on the open mic were as follows (and I apologize for not remembering the poets’ names):
A young Laotian American man rapped about his family and his people being more than just refugees; he reminded us that they are warriors, and people who had and have substantial lives, ambitions, struggles. He made this comparison between his grandparents’ temple, and places in the city where communities converge. Various audience members provided the beats.
A young woman from the Marshall Islands performed a poem about researching American the effects of nuclear testing on the human communities on the islands for a school project. She started with this controlled not-anger seething just under the skin, and as her research escalates, the last straw is the American outcry against the apparent cruelty to the island’s goat and pig population with complete disregard for the human populations. So this is where the anger really comes out in her poem.
A young Pacific Islander woman, in a piece about sisterhood and feminism, and in the face of misogyny, a woman’s power of creation being godlike, had one of the lines of the night for me: “My pussy is so gangsta….” That’s one of those lines that you really have to earn. I think she did.
Another line of the night, from the young woman who is the third member of this trio (they said “we are a tripod”) of women: “porcelain paper planes / I miss you.”
As for some of the features: Kim Johnson performed very polished slam pieces, which I think were quite good, especially in their being idiosyncratic and borderline surreal. Consistent throughout her performance was her wordplay and this really nice sense of language being fun: “Pandora’s boxing gloves,” “writers’ block party,” “Salvador Dal(a)i Lama,” et al.
Brian Yoo and Mic Turner also gave quite polished performances of slam pieces. Turner looked as though he couldn’t stand flat on his feet, being in performance mode required his entire body. He began his first piece so casual, as if he were just bantering with the audience about chillin’ at Starbucks to talk. And then we realize he is in his performance, rejecting this popular notion that we live in a post-racial America. His performance was indeed like a rap session sitting in a cafe, that kind of meander in which one topic of conversation segues into something else so naturally, we forget how we got from one point to the next. And then we are back in the Starbucks, chillin’, just having a conversation. In his second piece, he’s shed his shoes, and in almost classical dance formation, moves from one persona into another.
Yoo performed what seemed like a signature piece, the suburban, little Asian American kid, the khaki wearing golf team member, at his first Hip-hop show, the Wu-Tang Clan, how he derives this exhilarating empowerment, how he becomes so large and bad ass, fed by the collective energy. Here, as I am more familiar with Asian American poets, writers, and figures, I immediately think this: if we could combine Jeff Chang, Denizen Kane, and Rupert Estanislao into one young body, it would be Brian Yoo. Oscar has some things to say about the Asian American inserting himself into Hip-hop, and the Wu-Tang Clan’s use of some Asian cultural artifacts.
I say these things about polish, just because I think there is a general misconception that “raw” and “edgy” are the opposites of polished, and that “raw” and “edgy” are the desirable qualities to have as a poet who is performative. I think there’s tremendous attention to craft in these folks’ off the page (i.e. memorized) performances. At times, it appears the gestures, the body movements serve as mnemonic device. I think when a poet is said to be “tight,” and I heard that term last night a lot from the folks around me, I think one thing they mean is that the performance is indeed polished.
As for Oscar’s reading, I say reading because of what I perceived as a stark enough contrast between his performance style and the majority of yesterday’s features and open mic poets. In a very thoughtful even contemplative set, he opened with “Heaven Below,” which was an effective hook and invocation, which garnered the audience’s acknowledging utterances, exclamations of “thas what’s up.” And from here, he launched into poems which I think of as microscoping, into the kind of hallucinatory and almost spiritual experience of perishing in a planned apartment building fire, into the specifics of an arsonist’s hands, into a David Henderson (Da Mayor of Harlem) poem cover, into his newest work, including “Making a City,” a very dense narrative poem arranged in tercets, springboarded from a Larry Levis line, “My love and I are inventing a country.” The audience response was very positive, appreciative, and thoughtful, i.e. not the raucous immediate visceral response you get from highly perfomative poets as above. I told him, sometimes it’s hard to be the poet in the room that makes everyone think. It’s the kind of work that really sticks, and in this way, is effective poetry.