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Sunday, January 31, 2016
Looking back about 15 months ago: Open mic night at the Red Herring Lounge
Standing in front of a mic for the first time since my last open poetry night about 15 years ago was not monumental. It was more like a pebble splash in a scenery of hipsters. The first open mic act was two guitarists with one man primarily on vocal. He was a man who underestimated his talent and smooth line delivery in the midst of singing songs about being an ordinary Joe. He trumped the ordinary Joe song with an oom-pah-pah beat and curious lyrics: “On the canvas of your mind, are there demons that you find? Are there secrets that you don’t show, things that we already know?” After his fifteen minutes of guitar showcasing with tongue-in-cheek lyrics, it was my turn. No one was dressed in black capes, and the ghost of John Berryman wasn’t waiting for me at the door. There were casual drinkers and random strangers covering gaping positions in the bar. A man with dyslexia adjacent to my bar stool asked me to spell “scared” as I was sorting through my poems between the 1990s and the new millennium. I headed up on stage with no specific swagger, just a tempo that exuded enough confidence not to trip. I thought the chitter chatter would die down from the two twenty-somethings engaging with the sound man, but it did not. They just kept up their distracting dialogue as the band played on. I held the microphone like a staff to command attention. “I am a victim one of them, a slave passing pilgrimage through the night, his honor was bearing me as his sight, naked from fright, he desired that night. I am a woman surrounded and plagued, by evil choices he has planted and made; desire and innocence, a birth within himself…” My voice trailed off into the murky cross-dialogue and gaiety of the room. I was no one special. I didn’t make an impact, except when one line I spoke indicated a lamp swayed by supernatural influence. For that I got a rapturous applause. The vacancy and shadowy cult of poetry is often an individual journey. It is not a public confession in a beatnik or modern coffeehouse, with glossy eyes fixed on the orator. It is a narrow experience, driven by a cryptic selection of identifiable words from the heart to the paper. It is a bleak ritual of a chosen anthem to rid oneself of the pain, whether it be love or purging release. I am not Jim Morrison, twisted and bound with flesh and drugs. I am not Terri Witek describing someone’s hand-painted face. I am not Louise Erdrich, mythologizing feminine and masculine creatures of the night. I am just an ordinary Joe, like the man who preceded me in the public confessional, using a personal language no one can fully interpret. The experience became too much of a risk for the stranger who might have been listening in order to understand me. Yoko Ono succeeded me as the third performer. A fair-skinned girl who had the beauty of a geisha but the composure of Jewel. I realized the audience wanted to be entertained with an upbeat tempo. Isn’t that what open mic is all about? For the trendy bar in a historical part of town, fifteen-minute acts must covet the flow of the audience’s attention. Tonight I am singing my single “Full Blood Indian” from my play “Father, Save Your Skin,” which was aired on cable television in the 1990s. My cold is over and I no longer have to be a blonde-haired Albert Camus, fanning the crowd with existential darts to arouse their conscience. If I sing it, they can capture the mood benign of the meaning. Thanks, Red Herring, for giving people a chance to express themselves. Between Joe Ordinary and Yoko Ono, I will carve my path into the New World.