todd moore | scratching it out street level for the poem

Todd Moore | Photo: Brian Morrisey | manipulated by Monsieur K.

There is nothing more unnerving, nothing more existential, nothing more exhilarating and depressing than reading poetry to a roomful of strangers. I think I can safely say that after having given poetry readings in almost every conceivable situation for nearly forty years. And, the reason I can make such a claim is that no two readings are ever the same. Every reading is different and differs to the extent according to the locale and the room in which it is given.

When Raindog suggested we do a road tour to promote both our books, I thought, why the hell not. It’ll be an adventure. Translated to mean, easy easy easy. But, I didn’t factor in where the readings got booked, the distances between places, the kinds of audiences we might have once we arrived. I was only focused on what I was going to read and how I was going to do it.

At this point I really need to publicly thank Raindog for all of his efforts in putting this road trip together. I also need to thank my wife Barbara for all of her behind the scenes efforts. Without her crucial help, advice, patience, intelligence, and coordination, my part of this tour really wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.

The one thing to keep in mind is that all poetry readings are local. It doesn’t matter if you read poetry in Sitka or in Sacramento, Peoria or Pittsburgh, Milwaukee or The Mill Gallery in Santa Cruz, you are reading in a locality and you are reading to people who mostly live and work in those places. You are also reading to people who, in most cases, are struggling to create a voice and a vision, sometimes at great odds. They may or may not have reached a level of mastery that the visiting poets have attained, but their work their efforts and their love of poetry is often unmatched anywhere. And, everyone I met on this tour was more than friendly in the ways that they reached out to strangers.

Reading poetry in america is like running the gauntlet. Reading poetry in america is like trying to perform Mozart on streetcorners with pennywhistles. Reading poetry in america is like trying to discuss art or aesthetics in a pool hall. It’s tough. It’s tough because american culture is essentially redneck roughneck and not at all conducive to polite conversation. America’s conversation is anything but polite. It’s rough house, it’s kickass, it’s balls out, it’s risky, it’s visceral. And, it’s where the best poetry comes from. The streets, the alleys, the gin joints, the whore houses, the dives. Raymond Chandler tapped into it, Elmore Leonard is still tapping into it.

Book Soup is one of the quintessential indy bookstores on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. I’m told it’s very difficult to get booked to read there. It’s a great place to get lost in. I love the way the store reeks of books. You can’t miss it when you come through the door. It’s my kind of bookstore. The only problem was that the minute I walked into the place I saw a couple of familiar faces so I had almost no time to get ready for the reading or look for books. Which is really something I have no business complaining about because I have never been good at getting ready for a reading. I might look at a couple of poems and maybe mark off a dozen or so poems I plan to read, but rehearsal has never been my forte. I like a reading to be of the moment. My excuse has always been, well, I wrote the goddam book, so why shouldn’t I know it. Call it arrogance or call it just simply being lazy.

Half an hour before the reading Barbara, Raindog, Geoff Farr, and I retired to a coffee shop across the street for a little more small talk. Situations like that always loosen me up. I knew what was coming anyway. Whenever I give a reading it always comes down to getting out of my chair and somehow making my way to the podium or whatever serves as the center of the reading area where hopefully I will be able to stand up straight and pray to god or whatever demons may be in possession of the room I might just somehow deliver my lines. It’s not a matter of nerves. I never get stage fright. What it comes down to is just simply putting myself in a zone where I can handle the language. Most good poems are filled with a kind of rapacious ungovernable power. You either gain control of that power during a reading or you will not be able to read. It’s really as simple as that.

This is that part of a poetry reading where you struggle to gain mastery over your own psyche. It never changes. It didn’t change in Berkeley, it didn’t change in San Francisco at the Amnesia Café where the whole thing could have gone sideways into a shot and beer disaster, it didn’t change in Luna’s Café or at the Mill Gallery. The way this whole thing works goes something like this. Imagine that you are a jockey and you are riding a thoroughbred and you are plunging out of a gate in a horse race. The horse is the poem and you have to gain control of the poem. Once you have control, that horse which is the energy will do anything you want it to.

The Book Soup reading went smooth to a small audience. The Berkeley reading had more power in it and I worked to the silence of that crowd in Priya’s Cuisine. I always know when a reading is going well because the room gets so quiet I can almost hear what people are thinking. And, I can make it get quiet. Bukowski worked his room through his heckling and schtick. I work my room by just letting the primal power of the poem take the audience where I want it to go. And, I never think about whoever else will be reading because when I am reading I own the room.

And, then there was the Amnesia Café. Amnesia is a bar. It’s the kind of bar my old man might have hung out in. Strictly, beer, mixed drinks, shots. Part of the trouble was we arrived a little late. The readings are scheduled for seven p.m. and last until seven thirty. No deviation from these rules. I entered first and was met by one of the bartenders who asked who I was and said I better get up on the stage because the clock was running. I climbed the few steps to the stage with Raindog right after. Pale light, red walls, black air. The photos reflect a larger space than I thought and now that I think about it the walls aren’t red but they felt like it at the time. Raindog read first.

I was next and by the time I finished I hated myself, the joint I was reading in, and practically everything else. It wasn’t that I fucked anything up. Instead, it just felt like a goddam train wreck from the second it started. It just felt off, wrong, goofy, dicey, and fake. The crowd must’ve liked it because we were asked to read a little longer, but I couldn’t wait to get the hell off that stage. And, I’m not talking about Raindog’s reading. His went fine. I’m talking about mine. Sometimes when I do a reading, I can read all the lines just right, get the feel of the poem out there, and still I know that somewhere in that mix I blew it, I pissed it away, somewhere the darkness ate up all of my words and there was nothing I could do about it.

Outside, someone introduced me to Neeli Cherkovski and I thought, this is one helluva way to meet this guy. Not long after, we went back to the little greek tapas place where we had a light dinner. I wanted to slug down a large glass of wine in the worst way but stuck to some shitty orangeade.

The next reading up was Luna’s Café in Sacramento. We got to Luna’s half an hour before the reading started and sat through three hours of open mike and contributors reading from a zine called WTF or What The Fuck. I think I finally made it to the stage around ten.

Like I said before, I never get stage fright but there is that moment while being introduced or during those seconds when I am on my way to the mike that I want to be somewhere else. I want to be driving someplace out in the mountains or I want to be halfway down the street or I want to be at the movies hunched way down in my seat. It isn’t so much panic as it is a kind of disgust about the way I just might fuck it all up. I could be that white rap poet who fucked up everything he read just before me. But I also know that won’t happen. At the crucial moment something from way back inside takes over and then I’m just the driver waiting for the directions.

Luna’s was filled practically to capacity though some of the WTFers and their friends left once they’d read. I consider these kinds of people tourists, they really have no fucking idea of what poetry scraped off a human vein really is. This was the fourth reading on the tour and I was beginning to feel it. And, I’m not exactly sure how but once you are out there on whatever tour you are on, there is a feeling of grayness that begins to permeate the atmosphere. It’s almost like psychic poison, or maybe the strontium 90 of nightmare exhaustion. You’ve read the same poem four or five times and no matter how you change the phrasing, it’s still going to fuck with you. It’s going to play it’s little head tricks with what’s left of the mush of your brain.

That night I slowed the pacing down a bit and really looked out at the audience. I took my time in glancing around. I took quick and yet prolonged looks at people’s faces. I let each poem have its own little carved out space. And, when I read a poem I let it settle its weight down in the air. I was taking larger risks now. I even had a few people tell me later they’d never heard poems read that deliberately before.

Friday after a leisurely breakfast at a local restaurant, Raindog, Barbara, and I set out for Santa Cruz. This was the one reading I’d been looking forward to since I knew so many of the people who’d organized it. But somehow during that car trip back, I began to grow deathly ill. I’m not sure if it was something I’d eaten or if this was some illness I’d caught along the way or if it was a really nasty ulcer attack or if it was possibly all of those scenarios with sheer exhaustion thrown in for good measure. Whatever it was, the moment I got to my room I went to bed and slept until the reading.

A half hour before the reading, I somehow stumbled into my clothes, grabbed the briefcase where I carried my books and lurched out. The Mill Gallery is one of those stark modern galleries filled with all kinds of fascinating images. Normally I would have walked around and looked at everything. Not this night. Instead, I was trying to decide if I would vomit shortly before or after the reading. Or, would I puke during the reading and if so which way should I turn so that I wouldn’t hit anyone or get anything on the video equipment scattered around the space where I was to read. And, the toilets were on the main floor and I was on the second floor, far too long a distance to run in case I had to.

I tried to say something to Joe Pachinko and Christopher Robin but it felt like all of my words were dropping on the floor like so much spit leaking out of my mouth. I had to lean on the balcony railing to support myself and wondered what the fuck I was going to do.

I asked Brian Morrisey if I could read first and he was kind enough to let me go on. And, somehow, I don’t know how I was able to get through the entire reading without vomiting. That came much later that evening. I can only guess what I looked like. I realized that I had to change the whole style radically, so I read sitting down. If I hadn’t I think I would’ve fallen down. I know that Bukowski always ritualistically threw up before every reading but not me. I hate throwing up. It messes with all the body’s natural rhythms. And, it can even fuck with the voice.

When I started to read I slowed everything even farther down than the night before. I’d pretty much decided I wanted to hear myself this time so I read to myself. I could hear all the cadences slowly come out of my mouth. Every word lingered right in front of me in the air like a piece of half rotten fruit. And, I almost milked the sounds even as sick as I was. It was almost like doing a cheap version of reader’s theater. Now, I had become my own interpretation of a third rate actor. Still, somehow I made it. I sprawled into the car that took me back and then spent the night dreaming I was reading fragments of poems to all of the hotel room’s resident demons.

Was the tour a success? Hell, I wouldn’t know. I took a piss at Vesuvios, bought some books at City Lights, briefly looked at the Pacific and puked my guts out at the Dream Inn. Otherwise, I was scratching it out street level for the poem.

Todd Moore | Photo: Brian Morrisey

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