Sometime in the spring of 2001 I saw an article in one of the New York daily tabloids about a Latino owned restaurant in Washington Heights, NYC. For those who don’t know, Washington Heights is also known simply as the Heights but I’ve always called it Domini-Land due to the fact that it is heavily populated by immigrant, first, second and third generation Dominican-Americans. So it shouldn’t be any news that a Dominican-American was running a successful restaurant there but what did stick out in the article was the owner’s love of the arts and how a poetry open mic was a weekly event.
I would love to say that my love for poetry started right then and there but that’s not how the story turns out. I end up at the spot to find it jam packed and that the only space left is all the way towards the back, right next to a high school graduation party. This is a good time to mention that my first poetry event was also my first encounter with poet-time which is also known as CPT, or as I call it Minority Standard Time which means the event started mad late. By the time it did start, I was fully annoyed and could barely hear or see what was going on in the front but did manage to hear one verse which left me somewhat impressed with the open micer’s singing voice but left me unimpressed otherwise. It was no great tragedy that my beeper(!) went off and I had to drive off to help out a friend.
My next open mic would be on Monday, August 13, 2001. In the few short months since my previous poetry experience, my life had gone through some radical changes, which included my business partner/best friend telling me he would be leaving the business and being witness to the accidental motorcycle death of a 21 year old friend.
I clearly remembering looking at the computer screen when I typed in the search engine (Hotbot was the choice at the time) for a New York Open Mic and got back a top hit for a little bit louder at Bar13. The only problem was that I was in the North Bronx and it was 6:55 and that this show was in Union Square starting at 7:30. For a second, I had a vision of bumper-to-bumper traffic, congested Manhattan streets and near impossible parking which meant I would probably get in the door by 8:30 which I was sure meant that I would miss the whole thing cuz there’s no way this event would run more than an hour. Right?
The next vision I got was actually not a vision at all but a voice which told me to shut off everything, lock up and proceed directly to Bar13 and that’s what I did. Traffic was light, the streets were pretty clear and parking was a snap so I made it to Bar13 at about 7:45. Oh yeah, I can drive like that when I have to.
I proceeded to pay my $5 at the door and was met head on with a full blast Beau Sia poem and that was almost enough to make me leave right then and there. Not that I wasn’t diggin what Beau was sayin, he was typically hilarious, but the energy that he delivered was something I had never experienced before and was sure I could never do. Which is the real conceit inside this story, I was going to Bar13 to see if I had what it took to be a poet. Mind you, I had no idea what that meant back then. I thought all it meant was writing a poem and then reading it to people. The thought of publication, poetic form, curatorship, critical feedback, constructive critique, etc., was nowhere near my mind. (I will say that my past business practices had prepared me for editing, revision and the ability to rip-off a good idea when I heard it so I didn’t come into this thing completely unprepared.)
Well, the night ended much later than 8:30, chances are it probably went past 10:00 since the open mic was filled to the max. In fact, here is the list of folks who read that night: Holmes McHenry, Jacqui G, Shah Devine, T. Rasul Murray, Stefan Wenger, Victoria, Shamika, Paul Dyeak, David Blend, Franklin Leonard, Sarah, Diane Roy, Smokie, Jaygeeoh!, Ras Sherman, Rachel Street, Arianne, Abena Koomson, Elana Bell, Mayda del Valle, Roger Bonair-Agard, Eric Guerrieri, Bassey Ikpi, Kamal Symonette Dixon, Onome Djere, F. Omar Telan, Ishle Yi Park and a ton of commentary from host Guy LeCharles Gonzalez.
No, I don’t remember this list by heart but I did find it in the old loudNOTES YahooGroup. A list I am glad is still up because I can look back at that every once in a while and see how I started not knowing a damn thing with my poems printed out in all neatly arranged in a three ring binder with sheet protectors, said poems most likely center justified and in some kind of shamefully garish font (but never in Comic Sans, oh no.)
Today I have my poems in a stylish font and neatly presented in a fine DIY chapbook format and I still feel like I don’t know much. I may know more than I did then but most days it feels like I still don’t know much. And that’s Ok. The other day I did a poetry presentation for some 5th graders and one very good question I got was: Does poetry make you happy?
My answer: When I can present a poem to an audience and they understand the poem completely, I am happy. But if that doesn’t happen, then I become frustrated with poetry.
5th Grader: Then why do you keep doing it?
Answer: Because something inside of me keeps telling me to do it.
I’m not sure the kid bought that last answer but it’s the most honest answer I have for him and for me.