Alan and Frank picked me up at the Sacramento airport in Alan’s old Camry station wagon. Alan’s pipe rested next to the parking break, and he blew smoke out the window into the hot fall air. We stopped for a minute at the place where Frank would be house-sitting for the next five days. His friend had just moved in, and it was almost empty except for a futon, a few framed photos and a small circle of teddy bears on the hardwood floor. They appeared to be having a book club meeting—at the center of the circle was a copy of Beth Lisick’s new memoir, Everybody Into the Pool, which, according to the introduction, is about being too weird for the normal world and too normal for the world of warehouse-dwelling punkrockers in which she spent her young adulthood.
I decided it would be an interesting couple of days.
Over dim sum, Alan and Frank talked about their respective towns of residence. Alan lives in Stockton, and one of his favorite pastimes is describing the guns and drugs and stupidity he believes are rampant there. Only “describing” isn’t even the right word, because it’s more of a stream-of-consciousness spew: “Guns! Drugs! Stupidity! Looks like the Gap threw up on it!” Frank is somewhat more forgiving of Lodi, where he lives with his mother and brother, but he’s quick to recount his first visit to a bar there, where football fans could be found railing against those “Forty-niners faggots.” But I don’t think Frank is capable of mustering real malice for anything. He’s just too much a sweetheart, too busy being in love with France and ancient alchemists and tarot cards and Baudelaire.
One might ask why, if these two adult men are so chafed by their hometowns, don’t they move elsewhere? I don’t know their answers, because I didn’t ask, but I expect it has something to do with how expensive even cities like Sacramento are getting. If you have a day job, it’s doable, but the new true bohemians are living in Lodi and hitching rides into Sacto for poetry readings and house-sitting gigs.
We stopped by the Book Collector, where I bought Steve Erickson’s Arc d'X and Frank chatted with the owner. Her husband publishes these great little miniature books with covers the size of folded business cards, containing one poem each. Today she was happy because she and her husband had moved recently, and they’d finally gotten a check for their old security deposit.
Frank and Alan dropped me off at the Vagabond Inn, where I read a few of the brilliant and inspiring essays in Susan Orlean’s The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. She’s one of those writers who, like Michael Cunningham, completely changes the way I see the world for at least a few weeks. Lately I spend a lot of time thinking how, if I wrote like Susan Orlean, I would describe things, and how, if Susan Orlean were writing about me, she would describe me. Here is her perfect description of a prize-winning boxer: “[He has] the earnest and slightly careworn expression of a small-town mayor.”
I flipped on the TV and was disappointed to find George W. Bush on almost every channel, throwing out Biblical-sounding words. Sometimes I just can’t deal with the sound of his voice, and since I was sort of on vacation, I searched out a rerun of America’s Next Top Model.
Then onto Luna’s Café, where I was to give my first reading ever as The Featured Reader. Frank introduced me to some of the regulars. Nice, funky folks, plus one guy who told me he hadn’t finished his MFA because one of his male professors had sexually harassed him and he “wasn’t about to suck some guy’s dick for a creative writing degree.” If that’s true, that’s awful, but I don’t know—the fact that he told me this one minute after meeting me seemed kind of angry and braggy and homophobic and defensive all at the same time.
It’s been a while since I’ve attended an event with an open mic. People in the poetry world love to complain about open mics, the teen angst and the people who love the sound of their own voices. And sure, there’s always some of that, but when you’re a teenager you need to fall in love with your own voice in order to figure out what that voice is. And there are always some great moments that feel like discoveries. Like Bebe, the woman who was taking out her garbage when someone hanging out in front of the café told her about the reading. She got up and recited a series of rhymed couplets she’d written years ago about her sister going through menopause. A definite crowd-pleaser.
And then there are people like Indigo Moor, who opened with the line (and I’m paraphrasing), “There is an extra star in Orion’s belt tonight”—it turns out to be a firefly in this beautiful poem that glowed like a firefly.
My main goal, when it came time for me to read, was to get through my story without lapsing into a coughing fit. I have been reliving my college years lately, meaning that I caught a cold and then proceeded to deprive myself of sleep and good nutrition and draw it out into a multi-week event.
I didn’t cough, and I didn’t spill the glass of water that I balanced precariously on a chair on stage, and I maybe even did a pretty good job of reading, because I found myself actively engaged with the story (“Stop Signs”—if you want to read it, it’s on the Blithe House Quarterly link to the right). I thought about the times I’ve seen Alanna perform, how she’s so present (which sounds kind of New Agey or something, but that’s the best word I can think of). Like she and the audience are hanging out together and having a great conversation at this quiet little party that is the song. That is my real goal, even though I’m not even sure it’s possible to achieve without music, but that’s what I want to do once I have this whole not-coughing thing down.
Afterward I went to Frank’s apartment-til-Tuesday with two other poets, Gene Bloom and a guy named Lob. Someone said that stands for Lots of Beer. He’s from Orange County, and was the only one to get the Medieval Times reference in my story. Gene read two poems at the open mic that night, one about his ex-girlfriend and one about things he likes to put on hot dogs, like cream cheese. Frank has been calling him Creamdog lately.
It’s been a while since I’ve had one of those nights, where I just say, “I’m going wherever my ride is going.” I need more of them. We formed our own little circle next to the teddy bears. Someone put on one of those Yule log videos. I drank tea and the guys smoked and the fake fire crackled. Frank told stories about doing drugs and poetry with Kurt Cobain in the old days. Lob complained about people who’d dropped out of the poetry scene. I felt like such a soccer-mom-in-training compared to them.
I thought about how almost everyone who I know who is over 36 had a crazy life when they were young. Did drugs with Kurt Cobain or played in a punk band at pro-choice rallies or ran around Mexico with Kathy Acker or led c-r workshops or did guerilla theater in Brazil. None of them spent their early 20s the way I spent my earl 20s, at a dot-com and in grad school.
But it’s not like I just know really hardcore people, because my under-36 friends are getting married and starting marketing consulting businesses and diligently mailing out their manuscripts. You could say this is a product of growing up in the ‘80s versus the ‘60s or ‘70s, but I don’t think that’s it. My parents certainly never did guerilla theater—in Brazil or elsewhere. I think it says more about the kind of person I am and the kind of person I look up to. I think it has something to do with how I always like musicians’ sophomore albums, how I’m not the one to discover them, but I stick around for their more experimental work that everyone else dislikes. I think maybe I need to read Everybody Into the Pool very soon.