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Coffeehouse Junkie

Published Writings

Essays: The nights and days before and after Christmas | Under The Holly | When the Lights Go Out | Filling My Love Basket | Below an Oak Tree | In Pursuit of A Good Life | Was James Frey Framed? | Spills and Splatters | Confessions of a Coffeehouse Junkie | Books & Desktop Icons | iPod, Therefore iAm | Writing, Painting & Thoughts about Spirituality

Poems: Fragile | Narrative Kernel | Reading "My American Body" | A Tube of Wet Rage | Abstract Painting in Blue | Saturday Night, Coffee House

Reviews: Tear Down the Mountain | Cinephrastics | Speaking of Faith | Transfer | Artificial Lure | Gospel* | RedLineBlues | An Invented Hour | The Sad Meal | Vagrant Verses | Fixed Ideas

Write Stuff Columns: Archive: 2006 - 2007


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Essay: Confessions of a Coffeehouse Junkie

If you've been to any number of open mic events you are well aware that pretty much anything goes. A few weeks a go I witnessed a didge (didgeridoo) duet. I've even seen a guy play a PVC pipe as a didge. A week or two ago an aspiring musician played several REM cover songs and last week a Boston girl rocked out on an acoustic guitar.

I go to open mic events to listen, learn and practice reading my own poems. But open mics often defeat me. The crowds are accepting only because someone else is eager to have their 15 minutes. The applause is pleasant but forced. At times it's more of a support group for unknown artists (like myself) rather than a showcase of local talent.

Literary events, by comparison, jive with energy. People attending these events want to be there. They want to listen, learn and commune at the table of wordsmiths, chew the morsels of metaphors and drink from goblets of verse. There is an honest response to the poet and writer at these events. I've participated in both and enjoyed both.

However, reading a collection of poems for a literary event requires a bit more planning than an impromptu open mic. When I organize poems for a reading I want them to communicate a theme or motif. I've been at literary events where a poet reads a random collection of poems. But I don't want to deliver randomness... I want to deliver purposeful poetry.

As I prepared for the August 11th Bonfires gig, I sought inspiration from the Web site of The Academy of American Poets. I read about the historic San Francisco "6 poets at 6 gallery" event held on October 7, 1955:

"Organized by Ginsberg and . . . Jack Kerouac, the poetry reading became one of the most notorious literary events of the 1950s. Wine flowed freely from jugs and crowds cheered during the reading. . . . [T]he 29-year-old Ginsberg, having published little up to that point, unveiled an early version of his poem, 'Howl,' to a mesmerized audience whose relentless cheers of 'Go! Go! Go!' brought him to tears by the end of the performance." (www.poets.org).

"6 poets at 6 gallery" was a literary event. Not an open mic. I still enjoy contributing to open mics, but I get jazzed about poetry gigs.

* * *

While preparing for The Traveling Bonfires music/poetry gig at Malaprop's , I received a poetry rejection slip from a literary journal.

Then I discovered that my next poetry book would not be ready in time for the event. I like to provide guests to my readings with some sort of souvenir they can take home. My first collection of poetry is still available through Malaprop's (order by request), but I noticed they no longer stock it in the local poets section of the bookstore.

Through all the depressing news I learned that one poem has been accepted for publication in an obscure Southern lit mag. A California editor (who emailed, "I love it") is reviewing another series of poems. It can't shine every day, but I'll enjoy the sun while it shines.

* * *

Four days before the Malaprop's reading I met with some friends at a local restaurant. At supper, a friend told me that she was looking forward to attending The Traveling Bonfires music/poetry gig. But she couldn't understand why I read and write poetry.

"Why not stories?" she asked.

I told her that I do write in other genres but I chose poetry as my concentration because it requires deep thought to write and read. Not that prose is easy to write, but poetry buries textured truths, which requires those who seek it to search deliberately. What may be investigated in a novel is compressed in 32 lines of a poem.

The German word for poetry is Gedichte or Dichtung. The definition of poetry in German encompasses the idea of compression or density--to condense a thought or theme. The English understanding of poetry embraces beauty and harmony--graceful elegance.

That's how I approach poetry--condensed ideas in a lyrical framework.

* * *

It's odd to think that I spent four weeks preparing for 25 minutes. I suppose that is the nature of poetry. I'm sure there are some poets who perform public readings that don't plan what they will say or read. I find that approach insulting to people who come to listen to them. That's like attending a rock concert where the band doesn't have a set list.

A responsible poet respects the audience by preparing himself/herself for each performance. So, I carefully selected a series of poems--a performance manuscript. Some of the poems have been published. Others have not. I read the series out loud to hear how it sounds--how it flows. Does it convey the motif I chose? The performance manuscript presented three ideas: embracing peace in the midst of internal and external turmoil, what has become of America and the life of an artist through the metaphor of art theory.

* * *

Two days before the gig, I received yet another rejection letter from a local poetry journal. Talk about a morale booster. Maybe I should have sent him an invitation to the event at Malaprop's Café instead of six poems.

"Chin up," I said to myself. "Review the poems. Make sure they are a gift to the people who will attend."

A poetry reading is like an art gallery portfolio review. You want to pick your twelve best pieces and include a couple talking points per painting (poem). This enables the curator (audience) to understand the piece in context. It also allows room for conversation after the viewing (reading).

It is reported that it took the poet Philip Larkin three years to complete his 50-line masterpiece "Aubade." His literary legacy can be found in 4 small books (consisting of 117 poems).

This encouraged me, for I have been working on a poem for almost four years (I doubt it will become a masterpiece). Many poems have been created in that period and maybe they will be collected in four or five small books.

I also read that it took Thoreau five years to get rid of all 2000 copies of Walden. I thought of how I'd like each book I publish to be a gift. If it takes three years to compose a poem and five more years to circulate copies, it will still be a rewarding gift.

Unfortunately, the editor in question did not know he received a gift. Instead, he rejected the gift I sent him--finding no room in his publication for it. His loss really--not mine.

I saw this same editor at another literary event at Malaprop's and thought about discussing my poetry with him. But I didn't. I guess I was still licking the scabs of rejection. What do you say to someone who anonymously rejects your gifts?

* * *

Malaprop's Café anticipated a big crowd for The Traveling Bonfires and set up maybe twenty chairs. I know I should probably get bitter about this and write a poem, but six of my friends filled those seats--and half a dozen other folks filled empty seats. My wife and youngest son attended and I saw several people poke their heads out from around the bookshelves to listen.

So, when I looked out from where I stood reading my poetry, the vacant seats didn't bother me. The intimate crowd of faithful friends and fellow artists made me smile several times throughout my reading.

For a moment, I wanted to get angry that more people didn't show up for the event. But then I saw my friend who wore a tie-dyed t-shirt and sipped a mug of coffee. I realized in that moment those poems were for him. Sitting next to him, a tall stranger smiled while I read my first six poems and a dark haired woman in the back wearing a black halter-top seemed to claim my poem "Orbiting the Familiar." Two women sitting in the second row listened politely and seemed to enjoy my "Letter to Walt Whitman." As I read my new collection of poems about art theory and I discovered they were gifts to a young friend, her husband and her mother.

As I was walking away from the Café with my wife and youngest son, I realized that those poems were read that night for that audience and that audience alone. Maybe in some other café there will be another twenty chairs that are being prepared to receive new poems to be read for new listeners.

Originally published in The Indie, September 2005