I attended a poetry reading Saturday at the Random Tea Room near eastern Spring Garden here in Philly.
The first thing that landed was the space. Like walking into a Parisian salon, there were benches and pillows in a circle by the windows where I perched with friends discussing the state of our gardens. The smell of incense and chai filled the space ringed by walls cluttered with curiosities. We were sitting by a little plate with a golden bull – a Taurus Plaque.
In one corner was a peg board with hundreds of pieces of antique jewelry. Victorian Cufflinks with gray gemstones in ornate metal – $25.
A little wooden cart with veggies and rice, wine and shot glasses stood in front of a shelf with teas and crystal decanters. One barkeep in a galley kitchen and a tiny sink served tea to 30+ poetry enthusiasts throughout the night.
It was cute and hipster-y, but of the sort that felt like the 1920s. Not really ironic, more — Victorian steampunk, that sincere, all-in, slightly awkward-for-it pleasure, but the technology was tea tins and poetry books instead of gears and monocles.
The night began with a reading of Kerouac haiku-bits punctuated by some blues riffs on guitar. There is nothing more to say except that it was a perfect opening. Moody and fun at the same time.
We moved into another pair of sound-poem readers, Jeffrey Joe Nelson and Jed Shahar. The poems that stood out were:
Jed’s reading of a poem about the earth, punctuated by a recorded track of someone discussing minerals and gemstones using a very industrial, clinical voice with words like uranium, igneous and seams of almandine garnet. I forget all the words, but the rhythmic use of the recording interspersed with the poetry evoked shifting tectonic plates, slow lava flowing underground, really transported me to a cthonic place, somehow.
Another poem was a collaborative performance between the two. Nelson read a powerful and intense tribute to recently passed Amiri Baraka. Like little needles, and hat re-setting of moral compass, or at least reminding. Something that I wasn’t sure about was the saxophone accompaniment. The intent was to be discordant and painful as the text’s reminders of joint culpability and the horrors of war and the hypocrisies of the rich and powerful, but the sax play actually caused headaches, which may have pulled us too far out of the piece itself.
Following the pair was Lillian Dunn, who graced the room with hilarious sexual fantasies about escaped tigers and chimps in Cincinnatti (among others) and short crystallizations of people on Broad Street to which I could have listened all day. They were poems about cities, yet somehow they felt infused with a tree-like energy, like they were the musings of some watchful oak with beehives and squirrels and the memories of seasons. Cities are just so funny, I thought as I listened, transported to some ancient heartwood consciousness tuned to the daily animal bustle.
Following her was Stephanie B., performance poet, good friend of mine and first-reader of my book. She began with her poem about Noah’s wife and the rainbow, which I’ve heard several times before. This time she told it infused a bit with the space, this literary salon, and it was read partially as if just relating a story to friends and partially with dramatic, choked emotion, as if that sharing space with friends was, and should be, made an occasion for performance. She followed with singing an old bluesy song, “oh what, are they doon, right now?” was the refrain to friends long passed, and the transportation that occurred was to a ramshackle little church by the side of a river, the Bible half-drowned, half-illegible, yet the people coming together anyway to sing together. At her urging, we all sang along, and the room was like that church. To what did we pray? We don’t know, the ineffable, remember when that was the point of church, that we don’t know?
Many other poets read, new and familiar. I read a passage from my book and added a few new people to my mailing list. The world of those who have heard my name and heard my language grows, which is nice from a marketing standpoint. But more to the point, sometimes you just need to get some wild language to break into the cages and corrals your mind has made to create something new. New connections, new thoughts, new perspectives, new rhythms, this is why I believe all novelists should hear poetry, the word spoken. Editing is also writing, but it’s always best if there’s something magical in the initial pen-to-paper.