Monday, April 18, 2011

Portland and the Slam

 On Saturday, I was to go with a man named "Mike" to the Japanese Gardens.  Sadly, at the last moment, "Mike" cancelled, citing last minute school stuff as the reason.  As of the time of this writing, he has not written a follow-up email to reschedule.  I suspect foul play.  Due to this, and to the fact that I had no one else lined up for another meeting, when a man named Joe emailed me Sunday afternoon about a poetry slam at Backspace at 7:30 that evening, I immediately responded that I would go.  While Joe is not from Minnesota, Joe is a man.  Joe is, in fact, my sixth man, which brings me to my most recent and violently effervescent concern.   This most recent concern makes my suspicion of Minnesotans seem, well, insignificant.  Not one woman has answered my ad.  Not one woman who has been searching the Craigslist "strictly platonic" area wants to take me somewhere she loves.  I feel like I should be alarmed, like I should be worried about the women of Portland.  I know for a fact that women exist here, I see them all the time.  Is it that they are too busy to love something in Portland, that too many things in Portland are too testoster-oni (oh, yes I did) to be loved, or, is it that they do not want to share what they love with another woman?  I don't know, but I will get to the bottom of this.  Right after I solve that Minnesota thing, I am all over it.

I met Joe at 7:30, at Backspace, on NW 5th and Davis, right around the corner from Ground Kontrol.  Backspace is an internet cafe which also doubles as a music venue all nights of the week, and triples as a life drawing space on Saturday afternoons.  They also have Ms. PacMan.  When I arrived, I saw that there was a $10 suggested donation at the door, which I would have paid immediately, had I not had to wait for the girl taking money to finish her conversation with her friend who was keeping her company while she was supposed to be taking money at the front door.  Portland hospitality at its finest.  I was very happy to see though, that not only was this a poetry slam, this turned out to be the Championship poetry slam for the city of Portland.  What amazing luck!  I had not been to a good ol' fashioned poetry slam since I attended the ones many years ago at the glorious Cafe Lena on Hawthorne, which has since closed and turned into a very mediocre breakfast place called Jam, which, as far as I know, does not host poetry slams.

Joe told me in his email that he would be wearing the same hat he was wearing in a picture he emailed to me of he and his father.  Not only was Joe wearing the same hat, he seemed to be wearing the entire ensemble he was wearing in that picture. When I arrived, I found him sitting at the computer bar next to a young kid wearing a Red Sox Hat and sitting in front a manila file folder labeled in big, sharpie marker-scratch, "Poems and Short Stories".  This folder was over flowing, and as I looked hard at the kid, it was difficult for me to imagine he had been alive long enough to write so much.

Joe and I had very little time to talk before the pre-slam band, Hollywood Tans, started playing, but I did find out he was born and raised in California, had moved to Portland to buy a house, as the houses in California were too spendy for him, and, that he had purchased his house at the height of the market, so now he was underwater, and could not sell his house for even 80,000 dollars less than the original purchase price.  Joe, like so many of us, was in a bit of a pickle, financially.  When I asked why he liked Backspace and the poetry slam, he said he liked being around the energy, and that he himself had been a writer but had not had the opportunity to write in a long time.  He had been putting all of his energy into his failed marriage.  He then showed me a bunch of pictures of his dogs on what looked to be an iPhone.  He was pretty happy that he had gotten them in the divorce.

The band started playing loudly.  Every once in a while Joe would lean over and say something, but I could barely make anything out over the noise of the band.  Joe was incredibly soft-spoken before the band started playing, and he did not do much to raise his voice after they began.  Then he handed me his small blue notebook to read.  He had been writing in it when I first walked in, and now, as I looked down at it, I had the all-too-familiar "don't be an asshole" feeling in my gut.  It is scary to look at someone's art before you know whether or not it is any good.  How will you tell them it sucks if it does indeed, suck?  I hate these types of conundrums with almost complete strangers, but, I kinda felt like I had to read it, so, as the loud, punk-ish band played, I read several small pages filled with Joe's tiny words.  Joe had written pages and pages and pages regarding his feelings on the human race, how we had to change in order to accept change, how we had to stop fighting wars, accept each other; all very big picture, human nature general stuff.  Not much about anything personal, really, but clearly, he was passionate about the fact that humans are wasting the gifts given to them.  Everything had been written in blue, until the last page, which only contained a few lines, and were written in red ink.  While the exact wording escapes me, in essence it was kind of a journal entry, which stated that his ex wife had moved out, and that he was free.  I leaned over and asked if he had written it that day.  He nodded yes.  At that moment I completely forgot about my concern that I wouldn't know what to say if his writing had been bad; it had been replaced by a worry that made the first seem kind of trite and arrogant by comparison.

Ten minutes later, the band stopped, and the poetry started.  What it came down to was ten finalist poets, vying for 4 spots to go to Boston to compete in the national poetry slam.  The judges were five people the slammers grabbed from the audience.  It amazed me that they put the fate of these poets in the hands of people who might not have known anything about slamming poetry, but, hey, what do I know?  That is probably how the best judges are chosen.   The MC was a poet himself and helped the crowd get into the "slamminess" of the poetry by riling us up and having us scream at the tops of our lungs intermittently throughout.  He said "fuck" and "motherfuckers" a lot.  He kinda reminded me of Abbie Hoffman, in a good way.  He would introduce poets and call for applause as they exited, he called on the judges to hold up their judging tablets and would then shout the scores out to the score takers.  On occasion, he would attempt to add the score up, get it wrong, and defensively yell at the crowd, "hey! it's Portland!  We don't do math here!"  At one point when one of the judges did not come back in a timely manner from a pee break, he presented a poem he had written about the catholic church that really knocked my socks off.  This is noteworthy because I am not generally moved by that topic.

For the most part, the poets were all quite young; most looked to be in their early to mid twenties, except for one older gentleman who turned out to be the best of the night.  Their obvious youth, combined with the force and conviction of their deliveries, made it an incredibly moving, gut wrenching and inspiring thing to watch.  It was an especially hopeful thing for me to witness, as I have of late been very sad at the growing population of people who seem to relate to one another via some form of technology exclusively.  Just the other night, I attended a salon held at a gallery downtown, and a gentleman I had just met excitedly showed me "Angry Birds"; a craze that he and my BFF told me is currently sweeping the nation.  It dumbfounded me that this ridiculous game was something that people were excited about.  Throwing birds at bricks to knock them over?  REALLY?  Instead of using technology to improve as human beings, we are using this amazing advancement to bore ourselves into an early death-like trance, so that when death finally comes, our thumbs will be our only working parts.

The gang of poets was equally divided gender-wise, and the topics ranged from anger around having been a meth baby, fathered by an alcoholic, to a poem pleading to take back the word "love" from Hallmark and use it as it was meant to be used; as if it actually meant something, and, to not be feared for what that meaning might be.  The man pleading the case for love actually pounded his chest several times.  That is raw devotion.  The emotional range these young poets presented was astounding, and their ability to connect with their audience was impressive.  I am finding it an awkward thing to attempt to convey what the poets so profoundly and articulately did that night, but I can tell you that the feeling in the room when any of them were doing their thing was raw; purely human.  All of us in the audience were with them, cheering them on, feeling the connection they all screamed for.  These people had so much experience and wisdom, so much fight in them, there was no way you could watch and not be profoundly moved.  There was no way you could not root for them.

The Slam encompassed two rounds of readings and then a final death round between six finalists, narrowing down to the four who would go to Boston.  Joe left after round one, and asked if we could see each other again.  I told him that the project I was doing kept me pretty busy, and as he left, I realized that he might have been seeing this as a date, so I decided that I would have to start changing the way I was contacting people and collecting great Portland places.  I had planned on staying only through the first round, but I could not tear myself away; I was still wanting to feed on the ambrosia of human experience.  My new addiction had become the poetry slam, and I was all in, all in until my glass would sit empty and bone dry, all in until I had drunk too much to see straight.

Round two was astounding, the poets all bringing out, unbelievably, more impressive stuff than in round one. One of the poets rhythmically and lovingly delivered a poem about how great Portland is, which, though incredibly clever and perfectly conceived, felt like a bit of a cop-out in a crowd of Portlanders, and I believed he would probably get the high score, until he was followed by a young, beautiful, and incredibly articulate Russian woman who spat out a poem about the hypocrisies of the U.S. government and its tradition of colonialism.  That poem pretty much brought the house down.  The poet who followed her took the stage in a state of disbelief and resignation.  There is only one thing we Portlanders love more than our city, and that is criticizing the U.S. government.  Getting to hear an immigrant more eloquently state what we are all thinking daily is just icing on the cake.

In the final round, the last six standing were the most impressive in this field of incredibly impressive poets.  Young women who had been screaming in the first two rounds were now seen pleading, the young men, more wildly gesticulating in order to make their point.  The I Love Portland poet told a story of he and his mother in the hospital, his mother suffering from cancer, calling him "handsome" through her plastic tent. It was devastating.  Another poet, a woman, used the analogy of the measurement of paper in weight, and contrasted this with the value measurement of the events certain papers record.  Brilliant.  In the end, the four poets were chosen, all deserving, and, happily, due to the large amount of donations taken that night, another poet would be financed to go to Boston as an alternate, and the sixth poet would serve as an alternative alternate in case one of the five going could not go.

Then, one of the young women who was not chosen got up on stage and told the MC and the audience that all of the poets had a gift for him, to thank him for being such a great supporter, coordinator, and all-around miracle worker for the poetry slam community.  As he stood to accept the coming gift, they all dropped their pants in gratitude.  He was so moved, he turned to the crowd, and also dropped his pants.  It was a true triumph of the human spirit, to be sure.

I left Backspace exhausted, happy, and in some way, relieved.  The whole reason I started doing social experiments was my fear of the loss of connection with others.  So many experiences of late have been about reality TV, internet games, and on-line dating.  In this spare, old cafe, I found no Angry Birds, only young poets single-handedly renewing belief, resurrecting by sheer will the taste, smell, and sounds of the human experience.  No matter how technologically advanced we ever become, there will never be anything to rival the experience of a person, a perfect stranger, opening his chest for you for a look inside.  My only fear is that once open, no one will understand what they are looking at.

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