Tonight was my first time as a featured reader. It was pretty cool. John Brantingham, the series host, turned the main hosting duties over to Jeffrey Graessley, who acquitted himself quite well throughout the night.
Very few of my loved ones, my closest friends and family, showed up. That kinda sucked. One guy had custody of the kids this weekend. One guy had to work sixteen- to eighteen-hour days this weekend. One guy was recovering from surgery. One of my oldest friends had an unexplained “scheduling conflict.” One VIP didn’t even RSVP, although I assume she was working at the restaurant. On the other hand, Raquel came along to support me — a first, since she’s not really the poetry type. Gratifyingly, she liked what she heard; I think hearing the poems read out loud helped her to appreciate them better.
I was nervous tonight. Partly it was the adrenaline from the pressure and anticipation of my first featured reading. Partly it was the cup of coffee and the mostly empty stomach around dinnertime. Partly it was the fear that my students from Orange Coast College and Santiago Canyon College, whom I’d promised ten points of extra credit for schlepping all the way from Orange County, would heckle me. But mostly, I was nervous that so many students would show up to the bookstore that Deborah, the owner, would turn them away, citing fire codes, civic ordinances, and such. I am a silly, silly man; Deborah, of course, had no problems with more potential customers. In the end, nineteen students wound up showing up and signing in, which is a pretty good haul.
Before I talked to Deborah and had my concerns assuaged, I nearly flipped when Raquel and I arrived at the bookstore to find an audience filled with middle schoolers. I thought, “Crap, I haven’t vetted my set for audience appropriateness! I can’t remember which poems I picked, but what if they all concern titties and beer? Well…well…fine…the children will just have to hear about titties and beer. ARTISTIC INTEGRITY!” But Deborah assured me that the kids would be gone by 6:20 or so, long before adults opened their potty mouths.
Why were the middle schoolers there, anyway? There had been some school activity for which they wrote pieces responding to the prompt, “Diversity is…” Deborah had been picked to help choose a winner; she picked a whole bunch of students. Those in attendance were the cream of the crop, underaged appetizers before the open-mic course. And you know what? These kids were good. Some of them wrote the basic rhymed yet meterless kid poems. Some were really good. I was especially taken with the young lady who wrote a short story about the basketball game. She was confident and capable. I bet she’ll struggle with Philistinic assholes in high school but have a fantastic time in college.
[THIS IS THE SECTION WHERE I'LL DISCUSS THE OPEN READERS, ONCE SOMEONE GETS ME A COPY OF THE LIST. THERE WERE A LOT OF THEM, AND I DON'T WANT TO FORGET ANYONE FROM THIS SPECIAL NIGHT.]
After the second short break, lLoyd Aquino led off the features. He wrote and spoke well about sex, love, and religion. His centerpiece, performed with a female audience member, was a persona poem about Jesus Christ’s interlude with a prostitute. He called out to his family, who were in the audience: his parents, his sister, and who else? He did not perform “Beat Poets,” which may have been disappointing to some, but I’ve heard it a couple of times already, so I’m glad he gave himself a chance to bring some lesser-known pieces into the spotlight.
For my set, I picked poems I thought would go over pretty well, potential crowd-pleasers, mostly ones with at least some funny lines:
- “Poem for Christy’s Daughter” — As my only Pushcart-Prize-nominated piece, this had to find its way into the set list. I thought of the perfect introduction for it when I was taking a shower earlier, but I forgot the easy but hard-hitting flow of the proposed spiel once I got on stage. Oh well. John and Ann Brantingham had heard this poem before.
- “1952″ — This poem I wrote after hearing and reading Paul Suntup is a personal favorite, although it might have been a touch too weird for some. Nevertheless, it effectively established the predominant clever but screwy tone for the whole set.
- “Progress” — This is a poem about poems…sorta. I think reading this poem is when my set began to pick up steam.
- “Protagonist” — This is my self-aggrandizement poem, as well as another one involving doomed or flawed relationships.
- “Message to an Imaginary Stepfather” — This is another, older sentimental favorite. The Brantinghams had also heard this one before.
- “A Man and a Woman and a Bird” — This poem also addresses a flawed, doomed relationship, albeit more directly than the earlier ones.
- “Envy” — This poem was inspired by reading Tony Hoagland. The Brantinghams had also heard this one before. I wish New Mirage Journal, where it first appeared, knew how to spell my name; it’s not a hard name.
- “Saturday, 10:30 A.M.” — This poem also addresses a flawed, doomed relationship. Ann Brantingham specially requested this poem. That was very cool. I’d finished working out my set list by the time Ann reached out, but luckily, this piece was already in the mix. I’m glad I could accommodate Ann.
- “The Appointment” — This poem begins the final descent into seriousness. It’s still funny, but it discusses my infertility.
- “Iron Chef” — At this point, I asked John Brantingham how much time I had. He said two poems’ worth. I had three left in the stack. I got rid of #12 and made this one #10 instead of #11. It’s about my dad. It’s probably the most honest poem of the whole set, the one in which I played least fast and loose with the facts.
- “February Love Song” — I wanted to end with this poem to Raquel. I hope she liked it.
Somewhere in the middle of fidgeting with the mic, taking it off the stand and putting it back into the holder, I accidentally turned it off. Luckily, my voice has good projection. More luckily, I realized my mistake after one poem and flipped the switch back on.
As the most regularly-featured poet among us three, Tamara worked the mic the best. lLoyd had sometimes strayed too far away from it. I had tended to swallow it and, as noted, turned it off for a while. Tamara knew from the get-go what I had just figured out at the end of my set: speak diagonally near but past the mic, not directly into it. She modulated her voice very well.
Tamara began her set with a couple of new poems that I had heard at the last Hump Day reading, including one about the structure of our expanding universe, which I like particularly for its reference to Russian string bags. Then she focused on poems from her wonderful collection Wild Domestic, which I miss, because Daniel Romo is still borrowing it. (To be fair, I’m still working my way through Daniel’s copies of David Hernandez‘ Hoodwinked and Ryan Ridge‘s Hunters & Gamblers.) I’m very glad she included some of her “English-teachery” poems about language.
During the post-reading mingling, people said nice things about my set. Raquel steered me toward Sam Gosland, who had drawn a portrait of me during the event. (I didn’t think it looked too much like me — wrong nose — but it was cool anyway.) I said goodbye to the few students who hadn’t fled the scene as soon as my set was over. I said goodbye to Tamara and her boyfriend. Raquel took a picture of a star hanging in the sky between the Glendora Christmas decorations lining either side of the street. Then we were off.
After the post-reading mingling, as usual, I headed to Brantingham Manor, this time accompanied by Raquel, where fun was had. Both of us were hungry, as we had only eaten one small item apiece from Porto’s Bakery back around 3 or 4. Sadly, we have no cash for food until the end of the month, just plastic, so drive-thrus weren’t an option. Happily, the Brantinghams had set out some crackers and dANIEL cUESTA was in the kitchen making homemade naan. Jenna, who looks to be about what — eight? ten? — was in the dining room quizzing people on X things found Y and starting with certain letters, then scoring their answers, based on how closely they resembled what she was thinking. I tried hard to get a zero percent, but she felt undeserved pity on me and gave me a C+. Grade inflation infects the next generation. Raquel got an A+++ and a handwritten award attesting to how smart she was; I think we should put it on the fridge. Scott repeatedly told me, “You so corny,” which is apparently a good thing. lLoyd brought over a 1.7-liter bottle of Glenlivet, of which I should have drunk more. Adrienne lay on the kitchen floor and took photos of the people above her. Raquel and I talked with Charlotte San Juan’s parents about cooking, exotic food, and the differences between Filipino and German culture. I forget her dad’s name, but he seems pretty nice. Charlotte was hanging out there too, having avoided getting creamed in her car by an asshole running a red light and going ninety MPH earlier that night. Just when I discovered where the cool kids were hanging out, in the hitherto unexplored Brantinghamian backyard, Raquel reminded me that we had been on our way out the door and that I was supposed to have been saying goodbye. So off we went.