This house is our house/Let’s do it for the people

A beautiful night of poetry last night at Poetry for the People’s Open Mic. Ya know, this might be the first open mic I’ve attended in a long time and it was a fine open mic.

By fine I mean that the work was all delivered sincerely with an emphasis on the message of the poetry, the urgency of the political situation, the search for love and the resiliency of the individual coming to the forefront. In short, folks were looking to be heard.

Some might call this the bedrock of college-age poetry but I would disagree on two very personal points, the first being that I am presently taking college courses so that makes me of college age. The second point is that I felt this same way only eight years back, as a 31 year old trying to get heard in the NYC Open Mic scene. After hearing yesterday’s work, I find myself missing that fire, the fire that turns every reading into a life-or-death situation.

Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. There was a couple of times that I was ready to give up on poetry because I felt my one poem on the open mic fell short. It’s easy to look back on those down moments and dismiss them but I never do because all it took was one person remembering a line or a fragment of my reading to give me enough fuel to come back the next week. And then it stopped being life-or-death on the mic. Enough folks in the audience knew and liked my work that I was almost guaranteed positive reaction. Once it went into automatic like that, I knew I had to leave the NYC Open Mics and move to a place where poetry was dangerous again. Hence, my current position as an aspiring author. And every submission letter is a big leap into the unknown and every publishing opportunity is a blessing.

Back to the open mic. Barb breaks the reading down wonderfully over at her blog but I’d like to add a little bit. Robyn Brooks delivered a short but strong Neruda inspired poem, reminding her many students in the room that you can not create poetry in a vacuum. To the rapper who came strong with the beats and even stronger with the lyrics that started out with little kids clamoring for a good story- Thank you for bringing me back to the days of Slick Rick & “Children’s Stories.” To the sister on the open mic who called out white girls on a brown bus- Thank you for naming the harm. And thank you for the image of “porcelain paper planes.” To the host with the Marshall Islands poem- Thank you for reminding us it’s all about people. To all the organizers- Thanks for letting me share. To Amir- Extra thanks for letting the men in my poems be true boys. To the poet with his tight rhymes on Black History Month- I envy your love affair with the dictionary. To Kim Johnson- You flip contradictions and wrap em up in tight soliloquies. To Mike Turner- Your devotion to the art of writing and performance is apparent and appreciated. To Brian Yoo- Keep bringin the ruckus, Yoo style.

In a lot of ways, Brian’s poems were very indicative of the night. Confessional, lyrical and narrative. Brian’s poem where the speaker is a young Asian-Am kid from the ‘burbs getting hard-core at his first hip-hop concert really pokes some holes in the idea of a post-racial America. Brian’s speaker is afraid at the concert, asking what a kid from the HS Golf Team is doing at a Wu-Tang concert. Brian’s poem makes me wonder why an Asian-Am kid is pondering appropriation and authenticity when the concert goers are cheering a rap group who appropriated Wushu film culture? I’m thankful for the perspective and vulnerability in Brian’s poems that let me ask these kinds of questions.

As for me, I decided to go with a set heavy on the images and fragmented sentences focusing on work from the new chapbook and some newer pieces.

SET-LIST
· Heaven Below
· Ash Wednesday
· What the Landlord Said…
· Orchard Beach: Section Four
· Song of Devotion to the Forest from The Low East by David Henderson
· A Century of My Writing
· Make Me a City

I figured there would be a lot of straight-up narrative and wanted to present a counter to that. The organizers seemed appreciative of this and I got some nice props after the reading. I’m real happy with my pacing; how the punctuation, stanza and line breaks came through real clear in my recitation. A piece that two years ago I would’ve sped through in a minute is now taking almost double the time. I’m hoping this allows each word to sink with the audience. It better cuz the silence between the words is one of the worst sounds I can imagine right now. It makes me feel like the poem might not be connecting so I have to add even more emphasis for the next word, leave another cushion of silence. Moving from where every reading was life-or-death to where every word could spell doom. It’s all very scary and I like it like that.

YouTube videos from Poetry for the People: Open Mic Summer Series 09 are here.

Flickr photos from Poetry for the People: Open Mic Summer Series 09 are here.

Author: Oscar Bermeo

Born in Ecuador and raised in the Bronx, Oscar Bermeo is the author of the chapbooks Anywhere Avenue, Palimpsest, Heaven Below, and To the Break of Dawn. He lives and works in Oakland, CA.

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