Susie Debuts at a Poetry Slam

Without a doubt, Susie was the youngest reader at last Wednesday’s poetry slam at Kafé Kerouac, but she stole the show.  (I’ve always avoided slams and poetry groups.  The reason is because hearing them go on about their poetry is like listening to teenage boys talking about sex: The ones who are talking about it the most are doing it the least.)

Susie made quite a hit with “My Poetry: The Musical!”, where she states that her (autobiographical) poetry would make quite a good musical–why should Dr. Seuss and Seussical the Musical have the monopoly on it, after all?

I mean, picture this:
a musical about
a bisexual girl
who writes poems
about suicide and how annoying her life is.
And somehow, fairies work their way in.


The emcee of the event led everyone in an a Capella rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” after Susie came down from the microphone and the small dais in the front of the room.

(Caveat lector: When I loaded this video to Facebook, I was able to successfully rotate it so that you would not have to turn your head sideways to view it.  I did not have the same success when loading this to Blogspot.  I will tell you, however, that Susie’s poetry debut is worth the sore neck.  07/10/2011)

I had to do a little on-the-scene adjusting of the lens and the settings on my DXG digital camera, so I apologize for the picture quality of the first 30-45 of the video.  Fortunately I was sitting close to a speaker, so the audio is pretty crisp.  (The microphone on this camera is not all that sensitive.) 

The Kafé Kerouac poetry slam imposes a draconian penalty when a person does not put a cell phone on “vibrate.”  Whenever mine has gone off during a meeting or a church service, usually I feel like there’s a big red neon arrow pointing straight at me, and that’s usually punishment enough.  However, in this forum, everyone suffers as a result.  The emcee pulled out his well thumbed copy of a novel, Daddy Long Stroke, written by Cairo, had an audience member choose a page at random, and read a two- or three-page passage from it.  Daddy Long Stroke seems to be the literary equivalent of a blaxploitation movie.  I remember how awed I was when I ordered a Grove Press paperback copy of My Secret Life, the anonymous memoirs of a well-to-do Victorian man named Walter who lived for nothing but sex.  I was disappointed about how boring it was after the first few chapters–so repetitious.

Just in case you plan to defy the cell-phone-on-vibrate taboo, here is a video of the reading from Daddy Long Stroke:

We have definitely come a long way from when Walt Whitman lost his Interior Department paper-pushing job in the 1860s because of Leaves of Grass, or when Charles Bukowski’s poetry and writing constantly jeopardized his job as a third-shift mail sorter at the Los Angeles post office!

The first edition title page of Leaves of Grass.

Now that her first-time anxiety is behind her, Susie is looking for more places to read her poetry.  The next place may be the Rumba Café on Summit Ave.  (I saw a small notice about it in this week’s The Other Paper, and am trying to remember to clip it out to show her.)

At some point, I’m going to play Susie the compact disk of Allen Ginsberg reading his epic poem “Kaddish to Naomi Ginsberg 1894-1956,” the long poem he wrote in memory of his insane mother Naomi, who died in a Long Island asylum.  I have a boxed set of Ginsberg’s readings, Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs 1949-1993, and it includes his emotionally wrenching 1964 Brandeis University reading of “Kaddish,” which I first heard on an LP in Adam Bradley’s Stinchcomb Ave. apartment one night as both of us stayed up until dawn, making quick work of a 24-pack of Olympia.  “Kaddish” is a bare-bones presentation of poetry as autobiography and lament.
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Matinée Showing of HOWL This Afternoon

It is indeed rare when I go to a first-run movie, but when the Drexel Theater in Bexley posted a Facebook notice that they would screen Howl I knew I had to be front and center before it left Columbus.  (To those of you not familiar with Central Ohio geography, Bexley is east of downtown Columbus, the home of Capital University and  Trinity Lutheran Seminary.)

I had to keep reminding myself these were actors.  The movie dealt with the obscenity trial caused by City Lights’ publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, the fourth volume of its Pocket Poets series.  Scenes taking place in the San Francisco courtroom were color, whereas an extended interview with Ginsberg in his cluttered apartment (taking place two years after the verdict) was in black and white, as were the flashbacks of the incidents he described.  James Franco, the actor who played Ginsberg, did an excellent job, especially in the scenes depicting Howl‘s first public reading.  (These scenes were filmed in grainy black and white, as if someone had brought an eight-millimeter camera to the reading.)  I could have done without the surreal color animation interpreting the poem as it was read.

My late friend Adam Bradley was the person responsible for my interest in the primary Beat writers and poets, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.  (William Burroughs is another luminary among Beat writers, but his fascination with hallucinogenic drugs and guns turned me off his writings.)  I met Adam in the spring of 1986, when he was working on a doctorate in American literature at OSU.  He was focusing on Kerouac for his dissertation.

Adam, especially when he wasn’t medicated properly, was quite manic when he talked, and could discourse for hours on end without even stopping to take a breath.  Just so I could hold up my end in conversations, I began reading many of Kerouac’s novels (prior to meeting Adam, I had only read On the Road).  I wanted to be able to jump in at appropriate moments and say, “That’s true, but by the time he wrote The Dharma Bums, Kerouac was saying…”

I was disappointed that the movie made no mention of the poem that is Ginsberg’s masterpiece.  Its full title is Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg 1894-1956, a gut-wrenching memorial to his mother, who died in a Long Island mental hospital after years of insanity.  Ginsberg brought plenty of guilt to the poem, because he had signed the paperwork authorizing his mother’s lobotomy, and because he hadn’t been present during her final illness and death.

One night, Adam and I were sitting in his apartment in University Village, drinking 12-packs of Olympia (and then I’d run over to Rick’s Beverages and replenish the supply) and listening to Marianne Faithfull and Gerry Mulligan records.  When one LP ended, Adam said, “You gotta hear this!”  He put on a record of Ginsberg’s tearful, high-decibel reading of Kaddish, recorded in 1964 at Brandeis University.  Having grown up watching my mother’s descent into madness, prescription drug addiction, and alcoholism, the poem hit a nerve, and I made a tape of it that night after hearing the entire recording.  (The Brandeis recording is included in Ginsberg’s boxed set Holy Soul Jelly Roll.)

A sad footnote–both Adam and Ginsberg died in 1997, while Steph was pregnant with Susie.

I highly recommend Howl, although a person totally unfamiliar with either the poem or the subsequent obscenity trial will have a difficult time understanding what is happening.  When I came back from the movie, I took out my big copy of Howl, which contains annotations, pictures of the original drafts, contemporaneous correspondence, its legal history, and the poems (by Christopher Smart, St. John of the Cross, William Blake, and others) which inspired Ginsberg and his vision when he began the poem.

Looking over the pictures of the drafts, again I was thankful that the personal computer came only recently on the scene.  I’ve felt the same way when I’ve seen the many incarnations of James Joyce’s Ulysses that predate its publication.  You make a connection with Ginsberg seeing the words crossed out, or scribbled in the margin, or hovering between lines above penciled carets.  (I remember an article in Newsweek in the 1980s about the future of rare manuscripts.  The writer speculated if a floppy disk from Jimmy Carter’s word processor would eventually appear on the auction circuit.)

When I took out the book, I forgot that I saved a 2006 New York Times Book Review critiquing The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later, and put the clipping between the pages of the book.  A picture in the article jumped out at me.  It showed a table at the Virginia Military Institute, where buzz-cut, gray-uniformed cadets sat, each poring over a Pocket Poets edition of Howl.  The juxtaposition is glaring.  Presumably Howl was an assigned reading, but I have to wonder how it would have made it onto the reading list.  Howl grieves the destruction of lives, health, and sanity because of unfeeling conformity (symbolized by the “Moloch!” section in Part II), and many of these cadets were, undoubtedly, planning military careers, where their only chances for advancement lay in unquestioned, mindless obedience and unbending uniformity and regimentation.