Tuesday, March 6, 2007

"Life is Short, Art is Long."

Monday night, March 5th, I go by myself to Stone Soup Poetry. This is apparently the longest running poetry series in the Boston/Cambridge area. It's held in the Out of the Blue Gallery every Monday night at eight, and consists (as most of these do) of an open mic followed by a featured reader.

Because of a bus mixup, I arrive around twenty-five minutes late, and the open mic part of the evening is half over. I duck in and sit down quietly on a folding chair in the group of about two dozen. Chad, the moderator, recognizes me from my attendence there a month or so ago and passes me the sign-up sheet.

The Out of the Blue is a cool independent gallery owned by Debbie Priestly, poet and painter who brought me on her Cambridge Community TV show back in January. The walls are crowded with work by herself and other local artists. Tonight, the pieces consist mainly of portraits of nude women and men and pastels of cats. I'm sitting alone, listening to Chris Robbins talk about his desire to be more feminine (he calls it "Venus Envy"), and trying not to cough and sneeze too much as several flesh and blood cats reside in the gallery full-time, making the close quarters oppressive to my allergic respiratory system.

Chad calls me up next, before I've blown my nose or even taken off my coat. I jump up to the podium and begin immediately to read. My voice cracks, but not as horribly as it could or has. I try to look up from my paper as often as I can, but always my eyes dart back to the security of the written words I'm holding, away from the gazes of the audience, who really could be thinking anything about me.

As usual, Bill Perrault is video taping me for a weekly poetry program that plays in Cambridge and Lowell. The camera makes me more nervous, so I don't look at it at all. He also takes flash photographs of me while I'm reading. Each time the light goes off, I stumble just a little over my words.

A few other open micers go before the feature. Since it will soon be his birthday, Bill Perrault is featuring tonight with Sue Red. He reads his work straightforwardly, no pretenses for this short, ruddy-faced New Englander soon to be seventy-two. His words reflect his struggle with alcoholism, and there's nothing oblique here. "I am an alcoholic, and my mind is full of s.h.i.t." He won't say the curse word, which I think is odd. I wonder if it has to do with the television program. He also reads a few poems about being a boy, waiting for the ice trucks in the summertime. "They don't have those ice trucks any more," he says after finishing his last poem. "I sure did love that ice truck."

Sue Red reads after Bill. She's a small woman who looks like she could be in her twenties, but I get the feeling from things she says that she's older. She's adorable with two eyebrow rings, a black collared shirt under a red sweater, red plastic glasses, and a black conductor hat that says, "The Beatles." She begins her reading with the poem, "Getting There," by Sylvia Plath.

I'm impressed by Red's original work. It's not only her language that I appreciate, but the fact that she doesn't write about trivialities. One issue I tend to have with modern poets is so often it seems that their work is just poetry for the sake of poetry. I see so many people at these things who get up and read a poem about sewing buttons, or watching a kid dance, or breaking a pencil, or whatever, and the only point is to illustrate this mundanity in poetic language. Red isn't afraid to write about big things, important things, like love and time and passion, and she does it very successfully. In one poem, she reads the brazenly important, unselfconscious line, "Life is short; art is long." She ends with a fine, delicate poem about the band Dagmar, though it's really about love. I like her.

Two people have arrived even later than me to the reading, so they extend the open mic after the the feature. The last person to read is Bill Barnam.

This 80-year-old arrives always at least an hour late and strips down his layers until he's in an unwashed button-down shirt, a vest, and grey sweatpants. His shoes are laceless slide-on sneakers full of holes, and he wears a bandana around his neck. His skin is pulled over his face so tightly you can almost see the skull trying to break through, his eyes sunken into the sockets under bushy white eyebrows bugging out and looking at you with otherwordly depth and distance, stringy white hair falling to his shoulders. He shakes so much he is always in motion, and he stutters, but performs strange, prophetic, elliptical poetry with his full body, acting out every line. When he performs, everyone is silent, every eye focused on him.

"T-tonight I w-will perf-form a p-poem that jumps around a l-lot. It s-starts in Egypt, at the b-building of the p-pyramids, th-then it m-moves t-to Milton, M-Massachusetts. Then it m-moves to the c-circus. Then t-to the h-h-house of a n-nymphomaniac. Then to a f-forest."

I really wish I knew what he was talking about when he performs his poetry. The images are intriguing, and just from who he is I get the feeling that his words are important, almost as if he's a sage journeyed down from the woods, and I would understand so much more about everything if I could just decode his poetry.

After the reading I talk to a few people. Red gives me her card and tells me about a few other open mics I might be interested in. I also talk to a man named Seth and give him an old book of mine.

"Is your contact info on there?" he asks.

"No, but I'll write it on there." I write my Myspace address and he looks dissapointed.

"So what are you doing in Boston?" he asks as I hand it back. I've already told him I just moved here from Indiana.

"Just working at Starbucks and writing."

"So you just moved to the city to sort of... start your writing career?"

I'm not sure if he's being dismissive or not. "Yeah. Guess so. You gotta do something."

He nods and smiles, but I still can't tell if it's appreciative or condescending. "Well, you're off to a good start, I think," he says, and we part.

As I leave it's snowing hard. I see my book sitting on a chair by a bag and wonder if Seth is going to read it or throw it away. Bill Perrault is leaving at the same time I am and he holds the door for me.

"Thanks for coming back," he says.

"Sure," I say, pulling up my hood. "Thanks for having the reading." Then we leave in different directions.

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