Sunday, March 13, 2011

Open Mikes: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

About once a month, I put on my ears and go to a poetry open mike. I’ve been doing this for years. I’ve sipped coffee in countless cafés, fidgeted on innumerable uncomfortable chairs, and pondered art—the visual and the spoken kind—while poets belted out their work at galleries. I even co-hosted an open mike for three years, which was like planning a birthday party every month: I worried whether people would come, and then they did, and we usually had a blast. 

And after all that, I have a confession to make: I hate open mikes.

All right, sometimes I love them. But I hate them, too. I hate open mikes for the same reason most people won’t go to them at all: I don’t want to hear poetry that I don’t like. And what’s more, I don’t want to be bombarded with it while poets blithely motor past the time limit, shout about hand grenades, or torture the audience by demanding that we chant their lines back to them, or ask us to vote on which poem we “want” them to read. As I sit there with a bland smile on my face, pondering whether it’s medically possible to slit my own throat with my car keys, I think, “Why do I keep coming to these things?”

It’s no idle question. It’s something I think about a lot, because, God help me, a month later I’m sitting there, doing it again. Part of the answer is that open mikes have another side: a kind of beauty that comes from randomness. I might, for instance, see an unexpected genius come wandering in off the street, with dog-eared pages clutched in one hand. Or someone might take a form—a sonnet or villanelle—and turn it inside out, exposing a whole new world of possibilities. Or there might be a shy kid who gets up and reads for the first time in her life, and ain’t half bad. Some nights, there are a lot of these moments. Some nights, there are none. But, like flashes of gold that a prospector sees in a muddy creek, they're enough to keep me coming back.

Mostly, though, I go to open mikes because my friends go to them. And the more I go, the more friends I make, and then the whole thing begins to emit a gravitational force of friendship. I also go because I like to see what’s going on with poetry—what’s new and surprising. Poetry is one of those fields where the breakthroughs can happen at any level, to anyone. Some of them flare and die out, but some of them take hold—because someone else was listening, and liked it. Thus the giant life form of poetry grows, cell by cell.

So back I go, full of caffeine so I don’t nod off during the long bits, and armed with a couple of poems in my pocket. God knows who’s nodding off during my five minutes, but they’re kind enough to let me read, and I return the favor. And there we are, once again, throwing our poems in the creek. And hoping a few of them shine.

Poem: When the Aliens Ask of Art

Odd you should ask me,
inclined as I am to offer
a thousand sorrows humans
visit upon each other, but I see
you’ve grown tired of random,
dime-a-dozen litanies,
when you’ve caught the scent
of art. Very well.
Of art:

Here are figure skaters.
A line is left describing
where they’ve been, a cold
cartography. The patterns?
They mean nothing.
They do not commend
one route over any other.
That would not be art.
I see you understand this.

You see how arms can grace
a circle or make you think
of wind on grass. Note
how the female seems
to push her heart out
through the palms of her hands, 
then brings them back empty.
Art is a ladle you offer
to passersby, never asking names.

(appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction)

List: Things that Ayla, Heroine of the Clan of the Cave Bear Series, Did Not Invent

 the Clapper

Count Chocula

letterpress printing

online voter registration



B-2 stealth bomber

the novel

rack-and-pinion steering

Hot Pockets

(thanks to Melinda Allman for the idea)