Posts Tagged ‘Riots’

The Time I Turned a Poetry Slam Into A Riot

September 23, 2011


OK, I admit that on my previous post, I put it out there as a bit of a tease that the second time I performed The Tower I accidentally caused a riot. Fishing, fishing! So THANKS for rising to the bait go to my lovely friend Jan of Zurich (with whom I had an affair in San Francisco many years ago, the ridiculous brevity of which was counter-balanced by its painlessness, spontaneity and sense of effortless intellectual fun…) who went ahead and asked me to tell the story. That conversation was taking place on FB, so I put it there but then thought to meself: hey, as long as I’m sort of revisiting the events of a decade ago (lagging behind by a few days because, well you know, just cuz), I really ought to put the story on 66witches, or the next bit, where the cops come for me, won’t have as good of a context. It’s important for me to convey exactly how much insanity took place in such a short amount of time. People living in the US then will remember that we were also being told that we were under a major Anthrax attack.
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The 2nd time I performed The Tower was probably September 14th or 15th 2001. I was under the impression that I was one of the featured poets at a local poetry slam, around the corner from my house, a place called the Black Box, run by friends from grad school. I hate poetry slams by the way. In between the contestants, not a single one of whom was addressing the WTC disaster of a couple days earlier, were the featured poets who had longer sets; incidentally none of them mentioned it either.

It was the usual shit, mostly in the hip hop style, urban confessional, sexual politics yawn blah blah. I couldn’t fucking believe it. Then my name was called and so I went up there to do my thang. You’ve read the poem so you know it aint short. In fact, it’s nearly 2000 words, including the song quotes, and clocks in at anywhere from 12-17 minutes, depending on things like how I do the song bits, or if there’s a lot of audience reaction.

When I was about 3/4 of the way through you coulda heard a pin drop in that place. People were paying rapt attention. I was at the very bleakest part, the death and destruction and confusion part when all of a sudden I notice some kind of conferring going on at the back of the room between what looked like some of the event organizers. (cuz when you’re on stage, every movement in the house is like there’s a spotlight on it) This was in Oakland and the audience was pretty racially mixed, but there was a definite trend towards favouring the African-American rap style (which I love in music but don’t really like at a poetry recital…but I digress) and the MC was a twenty something black female intellectual type. (Just for purposes of setting the scene.) So I’m doing my poem but clocking what’s going on in the back of the room and then one of the persons emerges from the darkness and I recognize her as the MC. And she’s weaving her way through the crowd and coming straight towards me. I don’t know why she’s doing this, but try to ignore it and keep going. Then, she’s actually on the stage. Then she’s beside me! I try to keep going but of course I look over at her and that’s when she puts her hands on the Mic and sez:

“You know, we’re all really moved by whatchoo bin sayin’ an’ all but like, we really gotta move on to the next contestant..you’ve gone way over the 3 minute time limit…”

WHAT? What the hell was she talking about?

I don’t let go of a microphone too easily and my hand was still on it and so I say something like “I’m not in the contest! I was asked to come here and read this tonight by my friends who own this place!”

But where the fuck were they to back me up? I couldn’t see any of em.

A tussle began. This woman and I were literally having a tug of war with the microphone. She was being really nice but also VERY insistent. The audience started getting restless.

“Listen lady! I’m sorry if I broke your rules. I did not come down here to compete in your poetry slam. I came down here because in case you hadn’t noticed a KIND OF FUCKING MAJOR SOMETHING JUST HAPPENED LIKE 2 DAYS AGO AND NOT ONE OF YOUR SO CALLED POETS HAS SAID A FUCKING WORD ABOUT IT! FORGET YOUR CONTEST! THIS IS REAL LIFE! I’M TRYING TO SAY SOMETHING HERE AND YOU ARE STOPPING ME IN THE MOST HOPELESS, DARK AND EVIL PIECE OF THIS POEM. I’M SORRY I WENT OVER YOUR TIME LIMIT BUT I’LL BE DONE IN LIKE 2 MINUTES AND I PROMISE YOU WE WILL BE ENDING ON A HIGH NOTE IF YOU JUST LET ME CONTINUE! I HEREBY DISQUALIFY MYSELF OK?!!!”

Or something like that.

A few shouts started to come from the crowd. So I decided to put it to them.

“Who wants me to keep going?”

Well, quite a lot did and started to shout “let her finish!”

But there was also quite a few (most likely “poets” who hadn’t had their turn yet) who most definitely did not.

“Get her off! She’s gone on long enough!”

It started to get quite loud and heavy. Some people stood up and started shouting at each other. The MC and I were still grappling over the microphone. Then I looked out at the scene and noticed something else that really pissed me off and was so typical and indicative of the obtuse attitude I was facing and it was this: despite the place packed with people, so that they were even lining the walls and perimeter of the room, there were 3 or 4 perfectly good empty cocktail tables and chairs right at the front.

Why the fuck do people do that? I used to call it the “semi-circle of fear” and when I played in bands around San Francisco it was one of the things that really got my goat. This giant fucking hole right in front of the stage cuz…what…everyone needs to be near the exit in case it sucks and they gotta go? Are they afraid of having to have their reactions visible to others? Are they too cool for school? What’s the goddamn problem?

So imagine the above paragraph, complete with flashback pictures, happening in about 2 seconds inside my brain. Things suddenly came to a head.

With a final wrench I got possession of the mic in my left hand, simultaneously grabbing my papers and music stand and sticking them under my right arm.

I shouted my parting words into the microphone:

“GO ON THEN! HAVE YOUR CONTEST! WIN SOME PRIZES!”

And with that, I hurled the mic and mic stand into the empty front row, sending shit flying all over the shop, simultaneously (and rather gracefully, if completely dementedly) leaping from the stage and making a super-fast run for it!

By the time I got to the door the whole place had erupted into complete chaos. I took one look back and saw people one step away from fisticuffs and overheard little snippets of the many dozens of individual arguments that were now taking place.


..but she’s a fucking hypocrite, she was talking about peace but then she was violent…no you asshole she was making a fucking point…..i just wanted to hear how it turned out…..fuck you…. saddam hussein…well I didn’t vote for Bush…

They’d forgotten all about me and I ran home.

About 20 minutes later, a couple of my friends who’d been at the gig came to my house to see how I was. They told me that the Black Box had had to kick everyone out and shut down the event and lock the doors because it had gotten so out of hand that there was absolutely no chance of restoring order and returning to the regular program. So I guess nobody won any prizes.

This pleased me immensely but I was still really pissed off about not getting to finish and the whole thing confirmed how much I dislike the slam format, which I’ve stupidly proven to myself a couple more times even since then.

So I wrote another poem. This one was called “Slam Slam” and it was basically this story I’ve just told you, but in poem form.

When I finished it, about 7 the next morning, I printed it out and went and GLUED it to the front door of the Black Box.

I later found out, to my total horror, that the event had been videotaped. Several of my classmates from grad school then ambushed me at the peace concert in Dolores Park that took place one or 2 days later, where Spearhead played. Apparently these friends had been studying the tape and had a lot of advice to give me about my personality and wanted to help me through some kind of healing by watching it.

It was hard for me to accept their offer because I really couldn’t quite get past the part where a) it was on tape and b) they’d been watching it. One of these people was the very guy who ran the venue and whose crappy communication skills were actually responsible for the whole misunderstanding in the first place. I mean, why the fuck didn’t he tell me that I was booked into the slam and only had 3 minutes?

But they didn’t want to talk about that, just my reaction. It was a very new age scene and these were the very same people who had recently forced a very reluctant me into the centre of a bogus and very embarrassing forgiveness ritual that I absolutely hated and had to act my way out of. I’m sure they were right in the sense that I could have learned something from watching the tape but at that very moment it struck me as the most monumentally besides-the-fucking-point-thing to be bringing to my attention considering everything that was happening in the world, plus their own complicity in what had happened at the gig.

And then either the next day or the day after was when I was raided by the Oakland Police Force. It was an extremely intense period of my life and super-dramatic and traumatic shit continued happening for about 3 or 4 months.

Next time I’m in Oakland I am going to visit the Black Box which is still there. I have a good excuse to visit because when I left the country I also loaned them a piece of original art (a painting of Buddha reclining on a settee in a garden that I bought from the homeless people art project in the Tenderloin district in SF on a grad school field trip) that I’d like back.

But just between you and me, I’m also hoping they still keep the archive of past events in the same location as it used to be because I fully intend to find and remove that tape. I never signed a model release and while I am now finally ready to watch it, I think it should be up to me if anyone else gets to see it from now on.

I’m not sure what happened to the Slam Slam poem. This was all several corrupted hard drives and international moves ago. Pretty sure there’s a copy in my stuff in L.A. so maybe I’ll dig it out again someday. I seem to remember it as being pretty funny.