The Motorcycle Ride: San Francisco, 2004.

posted in: Poetry, Story 0
I can see my twenties from here! View of San Francisco overloooking Noe Valley. Photo: Jack French, 2007.
I can see my twenties from here! View of San Francisco overloooking Noe Valley. Photo: Jack French, 2007.

A song on the radio mentioned a motorcycle and it reminded me of something in a galaxy far away.

In 2004, I went on a slam poetry tour of the west coast. My friend Ezekiel went, too; he went to protect me (Ezekiel Brown is an imposing fellow with a heart of gold) and he filmed the whole thing, too, all the way from Portland down to L.A. That there is footage of this adventure makes me wistful, curious, and horrified all at the same time, which is an interesting emotional experience. I’ve been out of the slam scene for so long, I’m not sure if folks are still doing tours like these, but in the early aughts, it was a hot thing to do. They weren’t lucrative; you ended up spending money, not making it, because travel cost a lot and you’d only make a couple hundred bucks at the gigs, if that. But what fun, what fun.

Ezekiel and I were in San Francisco. I had done my set at a slam and it must’ve gone well because we were in a celebratory mood. We went to a bar on the Haight. I was a tender twenty-four. Can you believe it? I’m sure I was wearing ripped jeans and an army jacket, talking about originality, spirituality, and all the other alities twenty-somethings talk about with zero authority and fiery conviction.

Then he walked in.

You could put a book of Alan Ginsburg poems to my neck and I wouldn’t be able to tell you his name but I remember exactly what he was wearing: leather motorcycle gear, top to bottom. Not Harley Davidson motorcycle, but like, drag racing motorcycle stuff. Motocross, is it? I don’t know, but he was the sexiest thing I had ever seen in my entire life. Tousled sandy hair. Two-day beard scruff. He looked like freakin’ ad for Gucci cologne, all sleepy grin and swagger. Sex, okay? He looked like sex.

“Ezekiel!” I hissed. “Good jumping Jehoshaphat…! That man is beautiful.” (Pretty sure “jumpin’ Jehoshaphat” were not the words I used at that moment.) Ezekiel looked at me. I was not a strumpet; there was something different happened, something crazed in my eye. “I dare you to go talk to him,” Ezekiel said. “Double dog dare.” I watched the man sit at the bar and melted into a pool of butter. After the rest of my pilsner and Ezekiel’s goading, I did go talk to him.

I marched right up to that fellow and lord knows what I said, but I did something right, because before too long, we were having a pleasant conversation. I would steal glances back at Ezekiel with huge eyeballs and point to the guy and be like, “Can you?? Are you??? Holy Haight Ashbury!!!” Motocross Guy was nice. He wasn’t terribly smart, but at twenty-four, neither was I; really, we were perfectly matched.

The night passed into the hour where decisions are made. Motocross Guy asked me did I want to come to his place for a drink. Yep. Let’s do it. I checked in with Ezekiel, who was summarily impressed that I had just successfully picked up someone at a bar. (I’ll have you know this was the one and only time in my life I have done this, not only because I can say I’m battin’ 1000, but also because I doubt I top this experience, ever.)

We walked outside. “Here,” he said, handing me his motorcycle helmet. “Put this on.” It had not occurred to me that a man in full motorcycle gear was dressed that way because he had arrived on a motorcycle. But there his bike was, beautiful, parked right there in front. The machine was pure testosterone. Slick, fast, hot — kinda like him. He got on the bike and told me to get on and hold onto him. Before I could take a breath, we peeled out of the parking spot and sped into the San Francisco night.

Not all cities are beautiful, but San Francisco is a jewel. If you’ve ever been to there, you know it is a city of hills. Those hills mean village lights shine from shelves below and above you; the Bay is endless and the Golden Gate watches over all the good citizens. We flew. We climbed up and up, then fast down, zipping around corners and zagging the switchbacks. It was a good thing I was behind the fellow and wearing a helmet because my mouth was hanging open the whole time.

“More! More!!” I shouted. “Can we ride a little longer? Show me more!”

I had never been on a motorcycle in my life, not because I hadn’t had the opportunity. One of my and my family’s dearest friends, Jeremiah, had died in a motorcycle accident at twenty-four. I was twenty at the time, in college, when that had happened. Taking this ride wasn’t just fun and risky, it was a terrifying leap into the life I missed so terribly. It didn’t make sense. It was a stupid, dangerous idea — and one I couldn’t have resisted for anything and still cannot explain.

We got to his place. The evening ran its course. In the morning, I rubbed my eyes and I saw the ketchup packets and the stale Chinese takeout on his kitchen table. These sorts of interactions are not what they’re cracked up to be, you realize, due to the eternal fact that morning follows evening. He offered to take me down to where Ezekiel and I were staying, which was gentlemanly of him. I was so happy I could ride on the back of the bike again, I don’t think I drank the orange juice he gave me.

On the way back, he was showing off and got stopped by a cop for speeding. It was one of the most awkward moments in my life and it might still make his list, too: I hopped off the bike as the policeman came up. Getting a ticket takes time. It was getting late in the day. I didn’t even know this person’s last name; he didn’t know mine. We had no connection to each other, really. I said, “Um, well… Hm. I think… I think the train is over there?” Motocross Guy was like, “Oh… Yeah. Yeah, you don’t have to stick around for this… Um… Well, that was great. I’ll… I’ll see you around.”

He got his license out for the cop and I bought a train ticket and there you go.

Poets Rejoice: Let’s All Vape

posted in: Poetry, Tips 1
Poets Rejoice: Vape!
E-cigarette by London manufacturer Vaepen.

For most of my life, I have had a relationship with poetry — the good, the bad, and most levels in between. In betwixt. Betwither? Anyway.

When we were little, my sisters and I memorized the Shel Silverstein catalogue. In junior high, I was unpopular; many days were spent alone, writing lyrics to Debbie Gibson songs. You might be thinking, “That’s not poetry!” and you are correct. But I was rhyming about love, so I’m counting it.

By high school I was writing angsty poems in study hall with titles like “ripped” and “truth”, always in lowercase everything because capitalization was “establishment.” I’d shove those poems deep into my jeans pockets with my pain. I read Nikki Giovanni and Dorothy Parker and listened to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos, so my poetic education, such as it was, continued apace. Plus, my sister and our friends would take Honky, my grandmother’s white station wagon (I named it) into Des Moines and a few of us would read at open mic nights at Java Joe’s, the only coffeehouse in a 200-mile radius. I had guts, I’ll give myself that much. My picture was even in the Des Moines Register once for sharing poems at the local Barnes & Noble open mic; this is probably because I had a full mouth of braces and a shirt that said “Marlboro” on it. Sorry, Mom.

Speed up. College. I made theater for four years, but isn’t theater just one big open mic? Also, my boyfriend Dan moved to New York City and got deep into the poetry slam scene. I saw him perform at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and thought, “I could do that.”

After college, I moved to Chicago and tried to keep being an actress but the bottom had dropped out. I didn’t actually like pretending to be someone else; I wanted to write and perform my own stuff. As it happens, Chicago is the birthplace of the poetry slam and the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge was the premier place for it, the place where it all started. For the next several years, I was there every Sunday night, listening, gagging, applauding, performing, laughing, crying, and above all, learning as much as I could about poetry. I also learned about gin and tonic.

Now that I’ve outlined this history, you’ll have context for what I consider to be the most significant moments in my poetical life thus far. And now, The Most Significant Moments In My Poetical Life Thus Far:

1. Getting a perfect score at the Mill (10-10-10)
2. Seeing my first poem published in a literary magazine that no one reads
3. Discovering Philip Larkin
4. The birth of the word “vape”

Let’s look at this most recent development. Poets — and I’m talking mostly to the slammers out there, but this works for everyone — do you realize what has happened? Do you understand what you’ve been given? The word “vape” has entered the lexicon! Earth’s metering, rhyme-scheming citizens will never be the same! Not only do poets have a new word to rhyme, we have a word that happens to rhyme with some of the most often used words in poetry: escape, agape, rape (and possibly crepe.) Just think of the possibilities:

Black hair like velvet
Her face: a heart shape
Her voice, my song: 
“You wanna vape?”

or

We stood in the rain
Emotions escaping
Under the awning
Quietly vaping

This is big. Huge. Seismic. I’m just wondering if I’m the last to figure this out. It (almost) makes me want to go to a poetry slam and see what people are doing with the brand new word. It also makes me want to visit that hilariously named vape shop across from my sister and Jack’s condo in Chicago. It’s actually called “Let’s All Vape.” That’s the name of the store. I’d like to start any store and name it like that. “Let’s All Have Tacos” or “Let’s All Buy Shoes” or “Let’s All Get An MRI” — these are all viable shop names. Don’t wait for me, by any means — this is my gift to you. I fully support anyone who wants to name their shop “Let’s All [Insert Thing Here].” I will be your first customer, that’s how much I love that idea.**

New words, a basketful of retail possibilities — all of this, and I still have no desire to vape. Tough customer, I guess.

**I can’t stop: Let’s All Have Our Engines Examined, Let’s All At Least Have a Look at The Buffet, Let’s All Copy Something, Let’s All Get Gas, Let’s All Buy Things We Don’t Need, Let’s All Get Uncomfortable (sex shop), Let’s All Get a Headache (bath and body shop)

Fremd High Writer’s Week 2014: Part I

posted in: Day In The Life 2
That's the door I usually take to go inside. By year four, I actually remembered that.
That’s not the door I need to use. By year four, I actually remembered that and went to the other door.

Every year for (oh my) nine years? ten? something ridiculous like that, I have served as a presenter at Fremd High School’s Writer’s Week. Writer’s Week XIX kicks off on Monday, and I just happen to be headed to Chicago on Tuesday, so on Wednesday morning, bright and early, I’m taking a Metra train to Palatine and to try and kick up a little writer-y magic for my Fremd homies.

Here’s an abbreviated description of what Writer’s Week is, taken from the Fremd website:

“Writers Week began in 1995 when we featured students, faculty, and professional writers during lunch hours for a week in April. Since then, about a thousand Fremd students have taken the stage to share their writing. Faculty members from every department have related their stories through writing. More than two hundred professional writers from around the world have visited the Fremd campus during Writers Week to help us better understand writing and authors.”

Good idea, right? Lots of folks agree, including the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, who presented at Fremd years ago. Billy Collins. Marc Smith. These are writers of consequence, authors whose work has shaped (still shapes) the American literary conversation. And because people on that little patch of land in Illinois believe in the power of and the need for good writers writing, high school students get to walk into an auditorium in their very own high school and receive the lessons, the joy, the discomfiting feelings — the blessed thought — good writing can bring. The amount of work involved in putting on Writer’s Week is head-spinning. Scheduling, booking, fundraising, booster-ing, coordinating — it’s nothing any of the teachers get paid extra to do and they do it all anyway, year after dedicated year.

I’m slightly famous at Fremd because I usually end up kissing people. There’s a piece in my lil’ repertoire that involves kissing an audience member. You want to make an impression on an auditorium full of 500+ high school students? Try kissing one of them. I’m not making out with anyone; it’s just a kiss on the cheek. But it’s a kiss on the cheek with commitment, and I’m nothing if not committed. That usually causes a stir, but I might be famous at Fremd because I write a poem on the spot for a student every year, or because I had a breakdancer kick it onstage (he was up there anyway getting a poem!), or because I presented a Lady Gaga song as verse once time — anything can happen and I think we all like it that way. Whatever the material might be, I give 100% of myself (my attention, my focus, my passion for words, my passion for having fun with them for heaven’s sake) to the Fremdians.

I seriously love that entire high school. It’s like we’re dating long-distance. I don’t see you very often, darling, but when I do, when I do.

I’ll dress up for you, darling. And I’ll bring you a gift from New York. Wait for me.