Saturday, May 2, 2009
Poetry in Hell
I used read my poems, the ones I wrote incessantly, at a bar in Adam’s Morgan, Washington D.C. called Hell. It was in the basement of a club called Heaven, which I never visited. The walls and ceiling of Hell Bar were painted red with Halloween zombie hands sticking out of the light fixtures. The place felt safe: part womb, part pirate hideout. I made certain to be there every Sunday night.
The bartender would turn off the heavy metal screaming from the speakers. I would sit at a tiny round table nursing a beer and let the poems wash over me.
A rumpled balding man played the dulcimer every week as he recited long poems about herons. A Capital Hill type guy in pressed khakis and shiny loafers read acidly funny treatises in the persona of Wile E. Coyote.
I nicknamed a Courtney Love-esque punk girl the cum poet because she recited her opus on cum at least once a month. I’d smirk in a dark corner as she spoke, clutching my Sam Adams, a grown-up beer, something a teenager would never order, I calculated, because I was in high school and there illegally.
I usually kept to myself. I listened to the poets, read one to three short new poems that, to quote the founder Greg Gerding, I ‘soberly, painstakingly, worked on’ during the week and left as soon as the heavy metal resumed to catch the last metro train back to Northern Virginia.
But I felt connected. Over time the hell poets became my congregation. Greg’s poems inspired me to write on bar napkins. We were all there for the love of the word, small w. Clapping at the end, no heckling, and a generous time limit for each poet were the only rules.
When I got to New York to continue my study of theater at NYU, I went to the Nuyorican and was lost. Some of the poetry was phenomenal, but it was all so…. DECLARATIVE! I didn’t see a place in the Slam world for depressed middle-class suburban girl verse full of gentle sadness and a love of the small. Where was the equivalency of Poetry in Hell? The anything goes kind of place? My studies took over; I never found it. I stopped writing poetry.
This lead in part to a toxic writer’s block which leached beyond poetry into everything else I tried to write. Poetry had been my first church. Time unwound; meanings were illuminated; my deepest self was given voice. Without it I was silenced in ways I hadn't anticipated.
The block lasted from age 19 to 29. I twisted, cajoled, bullshitted, wept and fasted, wept and prayed my way out of it, along the way finding new congregations of actors, dancers, seekers, gardeners, and herbalists. But I think that I may have bypassed years of struggle if I had simply sought out other people who wrote poetry. ‘They’re doing it. I can do it too.’ I need conspirators. I know this now.