1.) Don’t apologize for your poetry.
In the beginning, there was bad poetry.
Nearly unjustifiable. Spiral notebooks full of it. At sixteen years old, I was a master of emotional regurgitation; I saw something, felt something, wrote something. I existed pretty happily within this loop until I turned seventeen and discovered the open mic. My paper thin, ticking, antique, once forgotten, beautiful and strange, heart, burst, into a thousand song lyrics. There was a room of people who wanted to hear my work. Never having been to an open mic before, I imagined it was a lot like VH1′s Behind the Music. The performance wasn’t just about the piece I would read; it was also imperative that I share my creative process. I would lock myself in my room and practice what I would say to my adoring fans. “This poem (brushes bangs across face) is about that moment when you realize that everything you’ve once loved is a lie. You know, (looks up wistfully) that moment.” My imaginary listeners attended to every word, eager to hear what sage advice I could offer them about love, the girl who had never successfully procured a date, much less told any boys that her lighthouse, refuge, rusted trumpet of a heart, had been interested in them in the first place.
When I finally attended the reading, I quickly realized this would not be my opportunity to reminisce in the tragedy of my adolescence, but an opportunity to read one poem, maybe two. I also needed to read in the first set, since I still had curfew and needed to be home by ten.
2.) Turn off your cell phones; that shit is obnoxious.
I don’t know when I first met my friend Jack, but I do remember the first time we competed against each other in a poetry slam. Somehow, I had made it to the final round. This might have been in part due to the fact that my youth group leader was one of the judges, but she promised she was judging fairly. If memory serves, by the third round, I had used up all of my “good” material. I think I had to dig into the Taylor arsenal, the purple notebook containing every distressing detail of our non-love affair, he being yet another young man I had accidentally not professed my love to, but who had gone on to destroy the summer of 2004, all the same. The poem wasn’t even a page long, too short, really, for a poetry slam, and it didn’t score very highly.
Now, Jack might not have looked like a credible threat. He was in his sixties and had a gray ponytail. I was too amped up on my grande hot chocolate and clear shot at fame, to notice who I was really up against. I vaguely remember knowing that he was important, one of those poets who only read in the second round. He approached the mic and began a simple story about being beat up by a girl when he was a child. The audience loved it. He described crying to his father, ashamed to be crying about a girl, and asking his dad what he should do. Jack killed the punchline with his father’s response, “Hit her back.”
The audience was really going now, getting hysterical at the trials of little “Jackie, the first born”. I knew then I had lost. But I kept listening, as eager as anyone else. And when Jack’s poem became about always wanting a son, I should have known to keep my guard up. I had a teacher once describe Mark Twain’s humor almost ominously, saying, “Any time Twain has you laughing, check for your wallet.” I should have checked for my wallet. Because when Jack rounded the corner of that last stanza, bringing us into the delivery room of his infant son who would die shortly after being born, I was demolished. We were demolished. The last lines of the poem were, “when Joan went into labor they said/the baby would be born dead./But he wasn’t: very briefly,/before he died, I heard him cry.”
3.) Keep your poems to three minutes.
If memory serves, up against each other again, Jack once said to me, “Someday, Jessica, you will beat me in a poetry slam, but that day is not today.” It wasn’t arrogance, it was accuracy. I never could beat Jack, and I don’t know that I should have been able to. We weren’t really competitive with each other. If anything, he began to be a mentor to me. He, a retired Irish Catholic, and me, a retired Irish Lutheran, we seemed to understand each other. I wanted to be half the writer he was, and so I would email him. Sometimes about writing and more often about life. My spiral notebooks of heartbreak became our correspondence; after my three and a half year “sure thing” ended, I wrote him, pleading for advice on how to move forward. He responded gently, reassured me of my life’s potential, saying, “Willie Nelson said, ‘Ninety-nine percent of the world’s lovers are not with their first choice. That’s what makes the jukebox play.’ This feels shattering right now because you thought you were in the other 1% and you’re not. Welcome to the human race, Jessica. Come on down.”
He was a writer. A real life, honest to god, writer. The kind that has a schedule and sticks to it. Even after moving out of my terrible poetry phase, I still seemed to focus on the attention, the validation that came from reading to an audience. Jack was different. He was writing for his audience, but not like I was. He seemed to truly care for them. Sometimes, if I was lucky, he would share his writing tricks with me. Once he told me, “If you want your audience to cry, you have to make them laugh first. That way, they won’t be expecting it. You’ll be able to get through to them.” Also, “Take notes. Come to the open mic to hear everyone else, don’t just sit there waiting to read your own work.”
4.) You will get from this reading, what you put into this reading.
Jack said to start with the jokes first, so here goes.
Two poets walk into a bar, and my friend Jack died last week.
I have never been good at punchlines.
Visiting him a couple of days before he passed, my friend Ryler gave him a stack of poems he’d just written. Jack, confined to his bed and frequently out of breath, looked at Ryler’s work and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll get you some notes on these.” It’s okay, that was a joke. He would want you to laugh at that. Smirking, I added, “Yeah, Jack. I don’t think you’ve done enough work. If you could just do a little more before you go, that would be best.”
Before we all left, Jack told us to take any books from his personal library that we might want. Robert got a copy of Ryler’s first chapbook. Flipping through it, we discovered that Jack had rated the poems, using a star system, two stars for this poem, four for this one. This was funny enough on its own. But returning home with my copy of New and Selected Poems by Thomas Lux, I discovered that Jack had rated his poems, too. Two stars for “I Love You Sweetheart” and only one star for “Wife Hits Moose.” To Jack, all poets were created equal. We all deserved feedback. He was listening. He was taking notes.
5.) Clap every poet to the stage.
When I was twenty four, I understood loss. It was the home I had made with a man, now not my home, and still only ten blocks away. It was the fifth job I had applied for after my bachelor’s degree, that I wouldn’t get. The Lutheran faith I could not find my way back to. This hollowing out, this strain. The difference, though, was in that these were places I could get to again. Eventually, I would make amends with my ex, my career path, my upbringing. I would fill four more journals with the never ending saga of my post-modern, third wave, lamppost lifeboat of a heart. The poetry would get only moderately better.
But to lose Jack, is to know loss. A man who would teach me how to write, and accidentally, by extension, how to love, and eventually how to die. He really did it well, so let’s give him five stars for ability to leave this life with grace, and one star for timing. If you knew him, you know that he left instructions for all of this. I am reading his work. I am taking notes. I am listening.
If you would like to read Jack’s work, please become acquainted with him here.