The Work of The Motley Crew

by Mara Jebsen


I’m somewhere in Brooklyn when Geko hands me a card emblazoned with two highly stylized yellow roosters. They’re facing off, beaks up in each other’s beaks—their potbellied, swaybacked, braggadocious bird-bodies suggestive of a cheerful cockfight. The words “Que Bajo?” are printed under the roosters, in a phrase that functions like a bat signal. It is an injunction to a set of city-folk in the know to break out the fedoras, the red lipsticks and the get-down dancing shoes.

The music, the whole set up—is an interesting urban phenomenon. DJs Uproot Andy and Geko Jones collect folkloric vocal tracks and drum-rhythms, pull them off dusty old records that were gathered from villages in Cuba and parts of West Africa, and lay them with instinctive genius over modern dance beats. Then they throw a party that travels up and down North and South American cities and lasts for years. The effect is unifying. It is hypnotic and belly-thumping, and it gets at some core ritualistic need to move the body both as one’s ancestors may have done, and in some startlingly modern way. This music, the more I think of it, provides the correct soundtrack, or even analogy, to accompany a mass love letter I’ve been meaning to compose for years.

I met Geko through the New York Performance Poets. I don’t remember meeting him, just like I don’t remember meeting the poets. When you ‘fall in’ with people, it really is like falling—hard to remember how it happens. But I do recall arriving splat in New York with the particular flat-broke recklessness of a very young person. It’s the kind of recklessness you get when you’ve been deadened by life after college and had a brush with illness. Under these conditions, one is offered a reckless New York practically incandescent with promise, but finds its famous shimmer also laced with those first dark inklings that a life can end too soon, and be far more easily misspent.

I began to spend mine well when I ended up one night behind a certain lava lamp in a lounge in Union Square. It was a brutal, hot September in 2003 and the little performance poetry spot I’d found was in full swing. It must have been a Monday, and I know it was my 23rd birthday. I was alone and nervous, so I hid in the corner behind the lava lamp. But soon, with that keen, falling sensation, I was ushered into a new set of worlds, electrified as much by the talents of some of the poets holding forth as by the ethos of vigorous joy that reigned in that room. Though I fancied myself a poet already, I’d never before become so deeply threaded into the lives of so many people, and–what is perhaps most interesting for my purposes here–so many types of people. What I glimpsed from behind the lava lamp was a genuine motley crew.

Perhaps I can mark that night as the first in which I began to hope that the motley pluralistic American-ish selves/bodies we occupied could be drawn together by what Whitman called the “Divine Literatus”; what I think I understand as the thin thread of violent delight we’d all found in the sound of words said aloud in the air. I almost said, “in the sound of the spoken word”.

In academic and literary circles there’s something of a stigma attached to performance poetry. In fact, the phrase “performance poet” strikes me as an attempt to run away from the even more stigmatized “spoken word artist”. But after many years of trying to write for page and stage, I’m no longer interested in these battles, or the underlying aesthetic and class wars they may obscure. For me, the answer has become very basic. I love to silently read and write poems. I love hearing, memorizing, animating, and speaking them, equally well.

A person could talk/write for hours about the different set of challenges that present themselves in writing for a page or for a stage, or ideally, both at once. I’d like to do that sometime, but for now I’ll say that most the basic difference between them is this: in performance poetry, when you offer a poem, you’ve got to take your body along with you. This has interesting implications for the way we understand the ‘’I”. Although one is in no way required to tell the truth onstage, it’s a given that unless you are undertaking a persona poem, the audience roughly assumes that the “I” you speak of is you. And because the “I”s (the “we”s, the “us”) arriving at an open mics in New York performance poetry venues are so noticeably tall, short, fat, skinny, tattooed, Black, White, Asian, Latino, queer, transgender, dorky, chic, sexy, multilingual, educated, rich, working-class, etc; these “truths”–these sorrows, confessions, comedies and musics– that we offer of ourselves, are varied, complicated, and often at odds.

The novelist Russell Banks remarked several years ago that as the dominant narrative of Eurocentric-American history has been increasingly challenged in our lifetimes, and the histories of subordinated groups have been “added in” to history-books, we ended up with a set of narratives that we are quietly encouraged to visualize as parallel to one another. The publishing industry, and academic disciplines, divided into sections of “Queer Studies” or “African-American interest” for example, further encourage these demarcations. He notes that this separation extends to the temporal in the way we have distinct months devoted to honoring women, or poets, etc. Banks imagines that for the writer, and for the nation, this visualization of history as a set of separate threads is dangerous, and he appeals to the next generation of poets and novelists to follow in the tradition of Twain and Whitman by imagining a literature commensurate with the democratic ideals and promise of a young nation. To do this, we’d have to creolize, to braid, our styles and stories.

This sounds good, and almost easy, but it isn’t. Braiding together our various personal and political stories involves re-imagining the role of trauma in each of our lives. Research about Whitman’s actual political views reveal that he had a disappointing view of the promise of freed slaves (the word ‘baboon’ has been carefully removed from one of his essays) as though Whitman ‘contained multitudes’ but they did not get along inside him as well as we’d like.

I offer this biographical tidbit about Whitman only to honor, as Banks does, too, the deep difficulty (forgiveness, anger, acceptance) such cultural ‘braiding’ entails on a daily, nitty-gritty level. This difficulty we have, as performing artists, is also exacerbated by the audience’s demand for tragedy and comedy. Many artists will agree that some of the best work emerges out of the suffering part of our lives and the instinct that if you forget your suffering, you forget who you are. This personal instinct is related to the larger one–if you forget the suffering you have endured as a people, you forget, betray your whole people . At the venue I go to, we make no bones about the fact that we cannot always easily braid our traditions, but must take turns onstage, having particular evenings devoted to women writers, or queer writers, for example. And as performers, we’re not terribly tempted to forget who we are, because there we are, onstage, with our bodies, representing ourselves and all who resemble us.

Perhaps we should be understood not only as performance poets, but as poets of the body. Individuals who, like all artists, aim to get beyond the arcs of our own life stories; but who, in some perhaps spiritual manner, are not convinced that in order to transcend, we have to leave our bodies behind.

As the bits of red lava have completed their sticky passages up and down the bright interior of that same ridiculous lamp, I’ve seen nine years of comedy, catharsis, and cliché. I’ve seen tremendous displays of ego, shyness, honest grieving, righteousness, beauty and nonsense. I’ve been treated to instances of sheer, make-me- float-out-of-my-seat brilliance and to all the practice stages that lead up to such brilliance.

But the true brilliance and ‘braiding of traditions’ amongst our motley crew is not always obvious, and it doesn’t always happen onstage. Sometimes it happens later when there’s squabbling and laughing that’s provoked and resolved over e-mail, and in kitchens, in barrooms and bedrooms, in dance-clubs and diners. These are terrible spats about gender, race, class and sexual mores, but they are also lover’s quarrels.

Which reminds me of my love letter, which I seem to have forgotten. I had wanted to feature not only Geko, but Eliel who is also a dj-poet, and Sabrina who flamenco dances, and Syreeta, who took these photos, and Fish who left the Bronx, and Lynne, who is always at the center of the shebang, and Marie-Elizabeth and Roger, and Emily, and Geoff. I had wanted to mention the folks who run the equally important venues in the city that I didn’t happen to happen upon when I was 23. But I am like a person who planned to have an ‘intimate’ wedding, and before I know it I’ll have rented out a football stadium. Which is to say: there are a lot of us.

And indeed, because there are a lot of us, we feel like a force. But poets are a minority celebrated in April, and “poets of the body” are a minority within a minority. I’d like to say we matter—as we’re getting older, dozens of us are teaching in universities, starting presses, publishing, winning things (things, appropriately enough, like the Walt Whitman Award, and a National Book Award I think). I could say we matter because we offer energy to what is understood as a quiet, elite artform. Or, we could skip over the legitimizing powers of academia entirely and recognize ourselves as the second or third wave of a movement that began (in this city anyway) with the Nuyoricans, or the thousandth wave of a movement that began with oral traditions all over the world—with African griots, with Homer. And– since we like to get down–we should give a nod, also, to the Sufis, the whirling dervishes.

It is all very well to matter, to anoint oneself the fresh part of an ancient tradition. But we are also just a bunch of flawed folks gathered around an open mic any given Monday, laying our stories and musics parallel; braiding them or choosing not to. It doesn’t matter if we matter—we do good work. By which I mean fight. And love and write and booze and laugh and tattoo ourselves. And squabble, and holler, and write a whole lot of dark, beautiful stuff. Then perform it twenty times to get it right; write it twenty times to get it right; make each other feel it; meet downtown in our fedoras— to dance it all out— then start all over again.


Page Meets Stage

Que Bajo