It wasn’t just the scene that had changed

When I asked for suggestions for non-political topics last week, I got some great feedback. Three of the suggestions were actually closely related so I figure what better way to end the week than with some exhibitionistic introspection?

“…your first experiences with poetry/performing/and your growing pains in the scene.”

“How has becoming a father changed your perspective on life, if at all?”

“What are you doing now post louder arts?”

First, some quick background. I stumbled onto the poetry scene by accident in the summer of 1997, after three years of the Nuyorican Poets Café being a fun Friday night out and first-date spot. The first half of 1997 was without question the worst period of my life – emotionally and psychologically – with broken relationships, miscarriages, bad decisions and extreme self-doubts. In other words, perfect fodder for bad poetry. The first time I read in the Wednesday night Slam Open at the Café – July 16th, 1997 – my reasons had nothing to do with poetry. I had just completed an acting workshop and had written a screenplay that I’d converted to the stage, and really wanted to mount it at the Café – so I wanted to get to know the people in charge. I only had four poems, loosely defined, including a contemplation of suicide, a lost love piece, an old attempt at a rap song, and a rant that was really just an essay with random line breaks.

It must have been destiny because I won my first Friday night slam a month later, and qualified for the Finals two months after that when I won the semi-final against some pretty strong competition. My play was quickly forgotten and I dove headfirst into poetry and the scene itself, writing and reading like a man possessed, and getting caught up in the never-ending drama that follows self-destructive creative types like the paparazzi stalks J-Lo.

Where the first half of 1997 was full of personal disasters, the second half was classic road to self-destruction. I was a lightning rod for controversy, known for dissing people on and off stage, usually by name, and for drinking way too much way too often. At one point, Keith Roach pulled me aside for a lecture that included the infamous warning: “Broken hearts are bad for business.” By the end of the year, I’d witnessed much incestuous drama, had been at the center of a lot of it, and somehow ended up as the host of the Open Room after the Friday night slam. To be honest, I think it was partly Keith’s way of keeping a leash on me.

Three significant things happened in 1998: Salomé and I reconciled and got married that summer; I made the Nuyorican team and we won the Nationals; I added a slam format to my Monday night reading at 13 and shortly thereafter was banned from the Nuyorican.

The banning was a huge turning point for me, the equivalent of the privileged kid getting kicked out of the family home and disowned. Two of my Nuyorican teammates stood by me, one sold me out, and the other rose above the whole situation and did her own thing – a particularly awkward situation as we all toured together several times throughout 1999. Keeping the reading at 13 going became my primary mission, though – partly a personal crusade on behalf of those that saw it as a refuge from the slam scene, and partly out of spite to prove that I could succeed without the Café’s blessing. Unfortunately, it had a detrimental effect on my writing, which slowed dramatically, not to mention my ability to promote myself as a poet instead of a curator/host. On the bright side, my writing was getting better and more precise as a result.

2000-2001 found me writing less and less, fully consumed with running the reading that had, against all odds, developed into a highly respected venue, locally and nationally. Ironically, it was the slam that began to wear me down and ultimately, pushed me away from poetry. Twice. The fiasco that was Seattle’s Nationals was the beginning of the end for me and, by the end of 2001, when we were preparing to move to Virginia, I was fed up with the bullshit politics of the national scene, tired of fighting big fish in little ponds over their lack of vision. When I came back to NY last year – after a 2002 that was almost as bad as 1997, if for different reasons – I was disappointed to find much of what I hated about the national scene had infected our local scene. Go through the archives from last April and May for that BS, if you’re interested.

It wasn’t just the scene that had changed, though. I had, too. Being a father for a couple of years had slowly, maybe even grudgingly, given me a different perspective on life and what was really important to me. I still believed in the power of poetry, I just didn’t necessarily believe in the poets themselves or the affected (sometimes hypocritical) lifestyle many of them choose to live. A year off the scene allowed me to see them all simply as people, separate from their sometimes incredible talents, and I didn’t always like what I saw. This was difficult for me as I’ve never been one to overlook personality in favor of talent. WHO you are and HOW you live has always been as important to me as how well you write. And why. In this age of Def Poetry, I’ve found less and less people in it for the love and more for the affect. And yes, I mean Affect. For too many people, it’s become a pose, a facade – propped up by empty words and shallow poems calculating and constructed more than crafted.

My distaste for all of this greatly outweighed my love for running the series and it quickly started feeling like the burden it had become in late-2001. When I tried to change things, I was stunned by the determined resistance I met. I also realized that the series was no longer mine to control, that several others had finally taken a vested interest in it during my absence, and that that was not necessarily a bad thing.

So I planned my exit, said a quiet goodbye from stage that I think initially went over most people’s heads, and stepped down from the series that had been at the center of my life for over five years. That was on May 19, 2003.

Eight months have passed since then and I’m writing again. Not much poetry, and not necessarily what I would have ever expected, but the words are flowing like they haven’t in years. The passion is back, too. I’ve found a new home in Acentos and relish the freedom of being just another face in the crowd, being a part of a community that puts the poetry first and foremost, but still knows how to have a good time. I’ve also, I think, become a much better husband and father.

I don’t miss what I had because I still have it, in my head and in my heart. It’s corny but true: no one can take your memories away from you. Life post-louderARTS has been very good for me, and looks better – and, perhaps more importantly, feels right – with each passing day.

PS: I donated another $25 to Kucinich’s campaign today. With Dean on the ropes and about to hit the canvas, I’m hoping the well-intentioned but disillusioned progressives that backed him will realize there’s no significant difference between KerryEdwardsClark and now go ahead and vote their conscience. Anyone that thinks that a primary vote for Kucinich is a waste simply doesn’t understand how the process works. It’s clear that KerryEdwardsClark will get the nomination so why not send them a clear message about where you stand? 😉

[PPS: Yesterday was the 1st anniversary of this journal! Yay me!]

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