December 13, 2015

Poetry in Motion


When I was commuting down to Philly from Brooklyn two days a week back in 1992 and ’93, I crashed on a lot of couches. Trying not to be too much of a singular burden on anyone, I spread things around. One week I’d crash at my friend Dave Williams’ place, which was on Broad Street in South Philly, next door to a low-rent strip club called The Dolphin. The next week I’d stay with my editor Derek in the back half of a former hippie commune in Powelton Village, or with Suzanne and Peter Ross in their West Philly home, which was crammed with kitschy antiques. Sometimes I’d stay with Pissbucket in Germantown. A whole bunch of stories came out of all those inevitably drunken nights and all those couches. In fact here’s one now.

            Pissbucket was a former junkie and evangelical Christian who’d had an epiphany in his mid-twenties and traded out God and heroin for punk rock and wine. He was a musician who, in the time I knew him, fronted a string of roughshod local punk acts. He also wrote on the side, twisted and surreal short stories that tended to swirl around the conjoined themes of religion and sexual mutilation. Although the Burroughs and Celine influences were clear, the stories had a style that was uniquely his own, and I liked them a bunch. Never knew him to actually publish any of them, or even try to do any such thing, but he did perform them regularly at shows and assorted open mikes around town.

            One Thursday night when I was set to crash at his place (much to the chagrin of his then-wife, upon whom I had a terrible crush), he decided he wanted to make the rounds of a few poetry open mikes, just to try out a couple of new stories. Although he wasn’t exactly a poet in the traditional sense, his stories were brief and Imagist enough they could almost pass as poems if you weren’t paying careful attention.

            In general I have no patience whatsoever for poetry readings period, let alone those godawful open mikes. What awful, awful people these things attract. But I made an exception when Pissbucket was reading, if only to watch the expressions on the faces of the fey, sensitive poets around me as he got deeper into the graphic stream of consciousness of a psychopath in the process of carving religious symbols into his own genitals with a razor blade. So I climbed on the back of his motorcycle and we headed out.

            The first stop that evening was at a bright and pleasant basement cafe in Center City. There were maybe a dozen small tables, a scattering of wooden chairs, a black and white tiled floor, and lots of candles though they hardly seemed necessary. At one end of the room was a tiny stage, which I guess was usually reserved for light jazz ensembles. From six to seven every Thursday though it was home to a poetry reading, but a poetry reading open only to former mental patients and addicts. It had been created essentially as a form of therapy and a ready-made support community for anyone who’d been spit out the other end of the mental health system. I’ve been to a few such things over the years, and they remain the only open mikes I would willingly attend as an audience member.

            Back then the standard, serious, self-important poetry open mikes were all pretty much the same wherever you went, populated with depressed, pale young women trying really, really hard to be Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, and skinny white boys trying really, really hard to be Jim Carroll, Charles Bukowski, or Allen Ginsberg. They were painfully predictable that way, all pretense and pretention. But you go to a mental case open mic and you never know what you’re going to get, from a schizophrenic doing stand-up to a delusional paranoid convinced he’s the reincarnation of Lord Byron to an unsalvageable acid casualty singing impromptu songs about “pea green bubble blurts.” Pissbucket’s stories about cruelty, madness, disfigurement and misguided faith fit right in to that context.

            There was no booze allowed for obvious reasons, so I got some coffee, listened to Pissbucket and the others, chatted a bit with some of the performers, and had a fine time. Although much of it made no sense, it was still an unpretentious and relaxed atmosphere, with none of the backbiting and sniping and resentment that usually runs so thick in the air at your standard poetry readings.

            About seven or seven fifteen after that reading wrapped, and apparently in need of some of that noxious air, we hopped back on Pissbucket’s bike and headed off to the city’s biggest and most popular poetry open mike (whatever that might mean), which was scheduled to start about eight. I forget where this one was, exactly, except it was at an unfamiliar bar. The bar part was good at least, as it meant I could grab a beer and tuck myself into a far corner.

            The place was teeming with self-satisfied poets, most in their middle to late twenties and quite proud of themselves for being sensitive and insightful poets.

            Pissbucket told me the place wasn’t usually that packed, but that week the organizer had shelled out to bring down a couple of famed poets from Boston to be headliners.

            Turns out I’d never heard of them, but the rest of the dullards seemed pretty excited. The stars in question were a husband and wife team of English professors, which right there is bad news. There are few things in this world quite as ponderous as academic poetry. Making things worse, they were an interracial couple to boot.

            Don’t go getting all hoopy-doopy over that. I have nothing at all against their being interracial (he was white, she was black). In fact I didn’t give a good goddamn they were interracial, but they sure did, boy oh boy. Even at that time, all those years after The Jeffersons, interracial couples were still a rare occurrence, at least in Philly. This pair here paraded it around in neon, so openly and obnoxiously proud of the political statement they were making I actually began wondering if they’d gotten married for any reason other than to make a political point about how fucking enlightened they were.

            Well, the others who’d signed up to read got up and read and made no impression on me at all as I sat in the corner and sucked down the pints. Pissbucket got up and read one of his stories, but was cut short by the organizer, ostensibly to get the headliners onstage as soon as possible. The nauseatingly self-conscious couple got up and each read their dry, lifeless poems about how important they were because they were color-blind (though of course they were anything but), and how courageous they were for daring to marry someone of a different race. As themes go, it got pretty tired pretty quick.

            When they were finished, the emcee opened the stage up to anyone else who wanted to read, given there were still twenty minutes left on the schedule before they had to clear out.

            Well, okay, there was this guy in town, a charmingly and deliberately obnoxious and confrontational gay man in his fifties named, yes, Jack Queen. He sent regular crank letters to the local paper I wrote for attacking everything and everyone—blacks, gays, Asians, me—often incoherently. We always ran the letters, which were admittedly pretty funny in their shrill obnoxiousness, and I had a kind of sick admiration for him, though I never wanted to meet him.

            As I sat in the corner and watched, Queen climbed up on the stage, grabbed the mike, and began bellowing about everything I’d been thinking, spitting obscenities and slurs and vitriol, verbally assaulting the esteemed poets from Boston in the crudest (but most truthful) of terms. The one phrase I remember clearly was something about “his loudmouthed Namibian bitch.”

            I then witnessed something I have never seen before or since, and something I’ve never heard of happening at a fucking poetry reading. Art openings and Stravinsky premieres, maybe, but not poetry readings. As I set my glass on the floor to applaud Queen’s inspired rant, that roomful of delicate poets, so shocked and offended by what they were hearing, rose up as one, stormed the stage, literally dragging Queen to the floor, sending the mike stand crashing in the process. Once they had him on the ground they set upon him with their weak and thin fists and feet. They then grabbed him and carried him to the door, where they cast him into the gutter outside. So much for “open mike,” I guess, but it remains perhaps one of the most entertaining spectacles in the history of poetry.

            Well, the reading was pretty much done at that point. Who wanted to try and top that?

            As we were heading back to Pissbucket’s place I said, “I never thought I’d ever say any such thing, but thanks for bringing me to the open mikes.”


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