Every time I do a reading
I am haunted by the blood of the poet. Haunted and driven right to the void by the blood of John Berryman. The blood of Hart Crane. The blood of d. a. levy. The blood of Vladimir Mayakovsky. The blood of David Lerner. The blood of Christopher Marlowe. The blood of Francois Villon. The blood of Alexander Pushkin. The blood of Yannis Ritsos. The blood of Eugen Jebeleanu. The blood of Orhan Pamuk. His novel SNOW is really a poem in disguise. Mouth and brain blood. The poem emptied out for the rope and the bullet. Dostoevsky puking blood all over himself while still dreaming of the Karamazovs the last day of his life. Charles Bukowski shitting his pants with blood while death comes to collect it in little bowls or with cupped hands, though his bones hold nothing. And, somehow Sylvia Plath is able to curl up in the fetal position inside that oven. She is not only gassing herself. She is baking her blood and her eyes as well.
Every time I do a reading it is part Laurel and Hardy slapstick and part mongrel tragic ritual. Charlie Chaplin chained to Macbeth. Twin nooses with Buster Keaton looped at one end and Raskolnikov at the other. Because each reading stinks of the painted cave and the cinderblock classroom, the darkened church the whiskeyed barroom, the air sprayed salon the perfumed whorehouse. Each reading is done next to a pile of carelessly stacked bones on one side and a table full of books available for sale on the other. Every time I do a reading it is an event loaded with raucous laughter that just barely covers the enormous screams of the hanged. And, some readings are more intense than others. When I glance out at the audience, I might be looking for Isaac Babel with fresh bullet wounds stitching a ragged machine gun line across his chest. Two in the head for good measure. Or, I might be trying to find Bukowski slugging back one more bottle of beer. Or, maybe someone has hauled Lautreamont’s corpse to the reading. The body is carefully arranged so that the pale head is propped straight up, the mouth slightly open but no words are coming out. And, even though Lautreamont has his eyes tightly closed, I can almost see them staring out through the rotting flesh of the lids.
And, every reading is loaded with the expectation of the unpredictable souped to the max. Will the poet suddenly pull a revolver and try to shoot out the lights? Will the poet yank a silver flask out of his coat pocket and take a large hit of white lightning or a tall glass of pernod? Or will he wrap a bottle of ripple in a brown paper sack and just swill it down copious like? Will the poet collapse in a frenzy? Will the poet fall down and writhe and attempt to speak in the tongues of the great ones? There is always the possibility that the poet will either embarrass him or herself by exposing his genitals. Or, to be more blunt his fully erect cock or her yawning cunt. Or maybe the poet will shit himself while delivering the lines to the best poem he ever wrote. Or, maybe the poet will blow his brains out at the end of the reading. The piss spray of brain matter raining all over the faces of those sitting in the front row. The ultimate gesture of slapstick violence and laughter with blood. Every audience secretly longs for that, lusts for that. It would outmovie the movies and every good poetry reading’s an unscripted movie. And, It’s also startgame and endgame, the Circus Maximus of the unleashed unholy word. The duende of language, massacre, lightning, blood, love, nightmare, and despair. Reading a poem even to just one person is pitting the alphabet against the longing for chaos.
Still, most of the time these things rarely happen. More often than not, the poet is worried about how he or she looks and is the mike working and are these really the best poems to read and have they been rehearsed enough and is there even a faint odor of armpit and if so is that desirable or not and are there any potential publishers in the audience and will the timing be right and will the audience love him because it is really all about love and out hipping hip and though sometimes just sometimes a poet who is honest with himself secretly longs for the audience to revile him, to hate him, to boo him, to walk out on him to shoot him to absolutely despise what he is reading because white hot hatred and unconditional love are the two polar emotions that a poet really wants from his audience. Everything else stinks of wine and cheese and who got what grant, the canned small talk, the nattering gossip revolving around fame. Most of the time readings are exercises in costumes and cosmetics. Most of the time whatever wildness that existed in the poetry has been exorcised out kicked out smoothed over and what remains floors no one, speaks to no one, wounds no one, affronts no one.
And, what good is poetry if it doesn’t do that? What good is a poem that will sit down, roll over, go fetch, bark on cue and be lovably cute? What good is a poem that performs good naturedly on command? What good is a well behaved poem? A poem that will not bite you in the ass or through the jugular? Mandelstam knows the answer to that one. I wish I could have been there the night he read his Joseph Stalin poem. Of course, his ultimate prize was arrest, the gulag, and finally execution. That night, that electrical night, did Mandelstam stutter? Or, did he read in a loud clear voice? And, was there a little drop of blood at the corner of his mouth? And, was that death clapping at the back of the room?
Every poetry reading is a speaking in tongues. Every poetry reading is a long chant conjuring those demons from the darkest of the dark. Every poetry reading is dance for and against the music of time. Every poetry reading is an assault on order and restraint. Every poetry reading is a quick black hole behind the poet waiting to be born. And, that goes for the mediocre readings as well. Sometimes I can sit at the back of a room while a poet is reading and I can hear the low hum of the raw poem aching to escape from the mediocre language. I can hear the intensity of a poem in a howl or a whisper, I can hear a poem in just a little spray of breath. Reading a great poem is like falling down drunk in the trainwreck of language. Reading a poem is like letting the night enter your bones. When you read a poem you marry language to the bare wire of night.
Because a poem may or may not be a rock song, may or may not be a ballad, may or may not be a blues song, may or may not be a death song, but in some songs, some poems there is something so low down, so dark, so fuckup that even death gets the shakes and loses a bone in that red hot mother of a smacked hard chill.
Imagine Billy the Kid reading Dillinger’s Thompson, his voice going so far down in the canyon that it gets lost in a tangle of hawks and the snakes. Imagine Dillinger reading out of THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BILLY THE KID just before going to see MANHATTAN MELODRAMA. Imagine Elizabeth Short reading an Alex Gildzen poem that has her starring in her own death movie. Imagine Dutch Schultz reading the scraped and wounded heart of NAKED LUNCH. Imagine Robert Johnson reading Give Me The Night. Imagine Robert Bolano reading the last few pages of UNDER THE VOLCANO. Imagine Sam Peckinpah reading NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MAN to his smashed and twisted shadow. Imagine Shakespeare reading The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor at the Globe and it’s all dark except for one candle burning and Shakespeare’s voice is beginning to crack.
The reason I like poetry readings is that they offer so many existential possibilities, so many razor edge scenarios, so much pure nitro packed into a line. A poetry reading may sometimes include rare moments for the desperate human gesture, the extreme message to or from the void. I have seen fistfights at poetry readings, I have seen poets pass out in front of the mike from alcohol and drugs, I have seen poets conjure the darkest of shadows, and I have seen death come to a reading tricked out as a child. The only way you can tell this is death is to look at the eyes the pure nothingness way back in the eyes. Poetry readings may be the last refuge for the human voice and the power of dreaming. Poetry readings attract beautiful charlatans and unhinged geniuses. And, I am drawn to them both. The irresistible charlatan and the midnight genius are the kind of people who set me on fire. Who level me with just a half dozen syllables. They paint me darkly.
As for the venue, it doesn’t matter where I read. I might be reading in Café Esperanto in Rockford, Illinois, where the walls are covered with the signs and symbols of nightfire mixed with language only now the letters have been splashed on in wide swaths of blood. Or, maybe I am giving a reading somewhere in a French Quarter dive and sitting in the audience is Tony Moffeit who has theorized that the ritual of doing a poetry reading is part of some larger ceremony called the Theater of Blood. Sitting next to Tony is the Chicken Man or his larger than life ghost. Chicken Man keeps flashing a 38 special under his coat. When he smiles his mouth opens on something so dark and neon red it hurts the eyes. And, later in the evening the Chicken Man will be presiding over a voodoo blood conjuring. I am haunted by the blood of the poet in the Theater of Blood, in the city of blood and the nightmare universe of blood. Or, maybe I am reading to the ghosts of the Anasazi in Chaco Canyon while everything pulses with the wind and the blood of the old ones and the feeling of their blood is everywhere. It permeates the stones, it invents the first and the last alphabet of breath. Whatever happened to that last Anasazi poem, who has it now, where did it bleed to? Or, maybe I am reading to the ghostdancers out on the great plains and they are dancing pools of blood right out of the ground. The blood of Black Elk and Big Foot and Sitting Bull. The blood of the machinegunned warriors has turned into rivers.. Their shot to hell poetry, their stolen bones, their sledge hammered eyes.
I am reading The Name Is Dillinger in Erie, Pennsylvania. I have been drinking cheap red wine all afternoon and into the evening. Ron Androla is there. Rick Lopez is there. Lonnie Sherman is there. We are all fucked up on hash and wine and poetry and the room is dark except for quick spots of light where the shadows are moving into and out of each other. But, the place where I’ll be reading is bathed in red light with large corona of darkness all around. It’s the kind of red light that completely dissolves the black type on a white page. And, I know that I am in big trouble because I never memorize poetry. I hate well acted performance poetry because it is cooked and artificial and ultimately phony. And, on some primal it level does not connect with the blood of who I am or the dreams that eat me from the inside out. So, when I get up I already know in my mind what I have to do. I have to totally improvise all twenty five pages of The Name Is Dillinger in that blood on blood light. I remember distinctly reading the first few lines and the last few lines but the in between part has remained a haze. The one thing I do recall is that there were moments during that reading when it felt like I was alternately swimming and floating and drowning in blood.
I am reading in the Clifton Café to another kid who also wants to be a poet. The joint reeks of stale beef gravy and sour vegetable stew. It’s 1959. The few poems that I have I scrawled out on a long yellow legal pad. The poems are anything but legal. Even then I dreamed outlaw, I dreamed B movies and gangster apocalypse. I have a couple of poems about hookers and a couple about railroad men and a couple about alkies. They don’t work I can feel it in my blood these things you know with your skin and your longing. But, I have no idea about how a poem should look and I have no idea about how a poem should sound. Still, that doesn’t stop me because I am intoxicated with the idea of just writing a poem, just getting it down on paper because I believed then as I believe now that just the act of writing somehow sets you free and I am thinking maybe Pasternak will like this and I am thinking maybe Ginsberg will like this and I am thinking maybe Kerouac will like this and two blocks away a freight is rattling past a soot blackened building and I can feel the table that I am sitting at shake a little and a fat cockroach skitters across the floor past my foot but I let it go because this is poetry and you shouldn’t kill anything while you are reading a poem an idea that I have thrown out since then you should kill everyone while you are reading you should knock the whole audience out and blow them to pieces while you are reading and the café coffee tastes as bitter as blood as bitter as a hooker’s nipple as bitter as dead man’s eyes and I really don’t give a shit how bad the poems are because at some primal level I know how lousy they are but they are a kind of down payment on what I am going to do and I know I am going to write something I am going to write something that will kick the nightmare right out of the marrow.
I am reading live on KUNM 89.9 FM in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s a Sunday afternoon, August 18, 1996. A blood red poster announces that the reading is sponsored by Big Web Enterprises aka Mark Weber in association with the Live Variety Show. The poster is decorated with the image of a machine gun and an Arthur Dove drawing of two men robbing a bank. The reading is taking place at the old Outpost on Morningside. This is Albuquerque’s foremost jazz venue and I will be reading with J. A. Deane. On the poster he is listed as trombone and electronics. Deane is actually a genius at electronic composition and this will be a live and improvised performance. To get ready for it, I spent the previous week reading out loud with all of the radios and tv’s on and turned up high in the house. I wanted the noise, I needed the noise because I wanted the wreckage of sound in my ears to prepare me for what I was about to read. It was the last section of DILLINGER. The Corpse Is Dreaming is the jump down title and it plays out into “at the biograph theater.” This is Dillinger’s death scene and when I wrote it I was trying to crawl into those last few seconds and nano seconds of Dillinger’s life. I wanted to somehow feel the splinteredness, the brokenness of what he was going through. And, in order to do this reading I had to try to make myself fully aware of the noise of his death, the noise in his ears and the noise in his blood. Because without that the poem would just be a recording of a historical fact. A poem of aboutness. I realized that when Picasso painted Guernica he had to dream himself being blown up inside of that Basque village, he had to nightmare it all the way down to the moist grave dirt. He had to be psychically blown to smithereens and still be able to paint what he saw and felt. And that’s how I felt about The Corpse Is Dreaming. I had to be psychically shot in the back of the head and all of the noise of the world had to pour into me in order to write this section and then in order to read this section, read it with dream holes all over my throat.
J. A. Deane and I did a trial run through of The Corpse just an hour before air time and it seemed flawless. Then we performed it live on the air. The one thing to keep in mind is that this poem takes at least forty four minutes to read in performance. Just to read it once the way it essentially deserves to be read is enough to exhaust anyone. Think of it this way. Imagine HAMLET condensed into just forty four minutes of howling intensity. Because The Corpse Is Dreaming is nothing if it is not explosively intense. It feels like having your skin torn off in long strips while your brain is intact and still functioning. The only other reading that I can imagine would be this intense is Ginsberg doing HOWL. And, the haunted part of this reading is that somewhere right in the middle of The Corpse I began to see the back of Dillinger’s head where the bullet hole was. I began to see it and I began to smell his dying and I began to feel the way his blood smeared his hair and my hand. The strange thing about doing a poetry reading is that if you are any good at it, you can read the poem, you can give that performance and outwardly you appear to be connecting with both the words and the audience. But, somewhere in the deepest part of you where the blood and the electricity and the dark matter are, somewhere back in that red painted cave you are enacting or reenacting an all too mortal performance for that shadowy other. That’s where the blood ritual begins and ends. It’s where the performance of something you’ve written suddenly tears the top of your head off. But you can’t let on to your audience that the top of your head is gone. You have to keep reading, you have to stay in the dance. You have to ghost dance it right into their blasé indifferent fuck you faces.
I am reading in my basement in Belvidere, Illinois, with Dennis Gulling. We are recording it all over a six pack of beer and each poem makes a swallow taste better. I am reading with Pat McKinnon in Duluth, Minnesota. I am reading with Joe Napora at Woodland Pattern Books in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I am reading to the seals and the ocean at the edge of the continent in Sea Ranch, California. I am reading with Tony Moffeit and Charles Plymell in Great Bend, Kansas. Plymell wants to know if he can cop some codeine strictly for medicinal purposes. I am reading with John Macker in Mountainair, New Mexico. He’s performing some new poems out of UNDERGROUND SKY. I am reading at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe NM with S. A. Griffin. He’s doing poems from the manuscript of NUMBSKULL SUTRA. I am reading poems with Mark Weber in his living room. We are surrounded by equipment and collaborating on a series about a desert reprobate/outlaw called Cherokee Hawkins. I am reading Relentless at Gary Wilkie’s Acequia Books on Fourth Street in Albuquerque. There is a guy sitting near the back of the audience who makes me think of Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurh. If I didn’t know any better I’d say he has a peculiar bulge just under his jacket. I am reading some pages from The Riddle of the Wooden Gun to Gary Brower at the Flying Star up in the Albuquerque Heights. Cormac McCarthy is sitting three tables away talking to someone who looks like some big shot Hollywood agent. I am reading at the Blue Moon head to head with Joe Pachinko while Christopher Robin paces the room while Misti Rainwater-Lites dreams of reading poetry to rock star crowds while an old dog takes a hard shit just outside the door. I am reading Death Song in my office to no one. Slowly, the shadows begin to inch closer and closer. I am reading out of DILLINGER with Tim Wells in The Cellar, a pub in Covent Garden, London. Miles Bell sits near the back. Niall O’Sullivan presides over it all. The nonstop pints are flowing.
Poetry readings are as much missed opportunities as they are mortally charged moments. For every Ginsberg reading HOWL there are ten thousand poets reading poems that don’t work and never will. For every William Carlos Williams reading out of PATERSON there are a hundred thousand poets who can only dream of writing as well as the thrown out lines from PATERSON. Or substitute Stevens here or Robert Duncan or Robert Creeley. My own missed opportunities are legion. I missed Charles Olson reading at Beloit College because I was studying for the finals of my master’s degree. I was right on the cusp of writing poetry then, of just saying fuckit I’ll do it no matter what. I never once heard Bukowski read and wish I had. I missed hearing Jack Micheline read, I missed hearing William S. Burroughs read, I missed hearing Jack Kerouac read, I missed hearing Robert Lowell read, I missed hearing Ray Bremser read. I missed Raymond Carver read because he died before he could travel to the college near where I lived. And, I wanted to hear him read, I was really looking forward to it. I missed hearing Neruda read. Somehow, just witnessing a great poet read is an act of completion. Waking up into that barrage of the raw language of origins is the primal absolution for any poet, any writer who longs to be healed by the tidal wave of a poem.
And, every reading is an echo of every other reading. If Cormac McCarthy ever gave a reading, I think I would hear echoes of Melville and Faulkner. Or imagine Shakespeare reading scenes out of HAMLET to Ben Jonson and realizes that he has never heard anything quite like it before but also knows that he will hear echoes of it replay for the rest of his life. Or, imagine Dante reading THE INFERNO to a bonfire made up of broken sticks and bloody rags and he is standing as close as he can without getting burned and he can actually see the lines from his poem go inside the flames and dance around in there. Or, imagine Rilke getting up enough nerve to read one of his poems to Tolstoy. Or, Whitman is trying to read Song of Myself to the Atlantic and every once in awhile a big wave will come in and try to swamp him. One great reading contains the history of all language, the shadow heart of all the best talking.
I’m trying to dream myself back to Café Voltaire. I’m trying to dream myself back to 6 Gallery in San Francisco. I’m trying to dream myself back to the Irish Rose in Rockford. I’m trying to dream myself back to Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee. I’m trying to dream myself back to the Super Chief Diner in Las Vegas, New Mexico. I’m trying to dream myself back to the Mercury Café in Denver. I’m trying to dream myself back to the Stray Dog in Petersburg, Russia. I’m trying to dream myself back to Dillingers in Chicago. I’m looking for one of the dives where Rimbaud may have performed in Paris. I’m looking for that bar where right in the middle of a poem Ray Bremser arm wrestled death and won and death said, This isn’t over. I’m looking for a café so rich and primal and dangerous and dark with the word that all you would have to do is write a poem on the wall in blood and the place would start shaking and strange words would slide out of cracks in the bricks.
And, I’m looking for that drop dead reading where the poet gets up and throws out all of his performance gestures, his cooked phrasing, his timed pauses, his raised eyebrows, his little band that dutifully backs him up for nearly every word, I’m waiting for him to throw it all out, and instead of relying on memory he resorts to the scorched page where the poem is still writhing, still a huge part of the ether and oozing with the suck and pull of duende packed dark matter. Because the page has blood on it and because the page has spit on it because the page has drink rings on it and because the page stinks all to hell of the poet’s and the poem’s DNA. I’m looking for the poet who has just written seven poems in a row one two three four five six seven just like that and then gets up to read all of them cold, with all of his heat and all of his violence and all of his glorious futility. No time to practice, no rehearsals for this kind of shit, just gets up and does it, what I want is all of it, the complete comic tragic collision, Beckett doing KRAPPS LAST TAPE as though he knows it is also his last go round, Bukowski heckling the hecklers, Mark Weber at his raw Okie best, Kell Robertson swilling the vodka and beer and reading Pretty Boy Floyd, Ed Sanders roaring through Hymn To The Rebel Café, I want Gerald Locklin reading from TOAD, doing the Charleston and missing some of the steps, I want the ghost voice of Tony Moffeit doing Wanted Dead Or Alive only this time his voice box almost comes out of his body along with the words, I want all the fluffed lines, the skipped words, the coughing fits, the beer runs, the throat choking, the dry heaves, the pratfalls, the breath gaps, the pounding bang bang bang of the poem pouring out nervously on a mike that contains the accumulation of the earth’s rank sounds or maybe the mike isn’t working at all and it’s up to the poet to project, to spew it all out in some kind of toweringly huge rage, and he’s yelling at the corrosive edge of his voice, and when he looks up he loses his place and then gets it back but is off a couple of beats and he is drunk with his fuckups and the power of the poem, and he has strained his voice so much that blood is coming out along with his words. He is speaking with all the rawness of his pentup blood. This is where the cuteness of poetry is gone, this is where all of the well timed punch lines have been burnt off and blown away, this is where the wreckage of language piles into the void. This is where Homer really started to write the ILIAD. And this is where I have been rummaging for bits and pieces of DILLINGER nearly all of my life. And, I’m still searching, yet. For as long as it takes.