Poem-A-Day: Outspoken Bean

Last month I had the genuine pleasure of reading my work as a feature in the Poetry FIX reading series here in Houston. The basic set-up is that the night has two features and also open mic opportunities. It was one of the best venues I’ve ever read in: large enough for a good crowd but intimate enough for them to fill the place, and a gorgeous coffee bar environment. I don’t read my work in public often, and it was a real treat for me to do so as part of this series.

I’m what I suppose many people would call a “page poet,” in that my work translates well on the page. Much of my work can read well at a microphone, too, but I’ve never been able to create the kind of energy and presence that performance poets do. This is a mild regret of mine. I think I might have somehow enjoyed being a poetry rock star in my twenties. (Slam poetry is still quite popular in Houston, by the way, along with two or three other established poetry scenes, because our fair city is big enough for all of us.)

The other feature that night was a local slam poet who’s very much admired and respected here and elsewhere. He goes by Outspoken Bean, and you can find several videos of his performances online, but I want to share this one in particular. This video is not of the night we shared a stage, but it is of a poem he performed the night we did. I admire his perspective.

If you ever get a chance to see him perform, take it.

***

Emanuelee “Outspoken Bean” is a performance poet, writer, compassionate mentor, electric entertainer, and an educator. Bean travels the country performing his original works and inspiring creative minds. Bean is a military brat, but calls San Antonio, Texas, home, and since high school Bean has been producing shows and performing continuously. That work ethic has taken him to Trinidad to Miami to South Dakota to Off-Broadway New York City and across the vast Houston Metropolitan where he inspires people from all walks of life to find and claim their voice. He is a 2011 Texas Poet Laureate nominee, ranked 9th in the Individual World Poetry Slam 2013, ranked 2nd in collaborative poetry at Group Piece Finals 2013, and ranked 11th at National Poetry Slam 2014 (both with Houston VIP). He started performing spoken-word in 2005. In his senior year at Prairie View A&M, Bean founded and coached the University’s first poetry slam team. In their first year, they won the title in their region and grabbed the 8th place ranking in the country at College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI ’08). Bean has also worked with the Harris County Department of Education, Houston’s Young Audiences: Arts for Learning and Texas Commission for the Arts, Houston Grand Opera, and coached Miami’s youth poetry slam team, Tiger-tail WordSpeak in the summer 2016.  He serves as the Project Coordinator, Lead Coach, and mentor for Meta-Four Houston, a project under Writers in the Schools’ WITS Performance program, where professional performance/slam poets encourage self-expression and literacy among Houston’s youth through creative writing and performance. Fins him online at http://outspokenbeanpoetry.com.

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Truly, Madly, Deeply.

This has been a rough week for culture. First David Bowie, and now Alan Rickman has succumbed. There’s a reason why we use the word “cancer” to name a scourge that plagues us.

In 20 minutes, I will convene my Harry Potter class, and we will pay tribute to the man who gained an entirely new generation of fans by embodying the Half-Blood Prince.

Probably I will show them this:

 

 

And then I will show them this:

 

 

Rest in peace, Alan. Enjoy the Bowie concert.

Featured Poet: Charlie Scott

This has been a wonderful month of poems. I’ve enjoyed all the work people have shared with me, and sharing it with you. As I’ve said before, I received so many wonderful pieces that I just couldn’t fit in for lack of days. If you had fun reading this series, I hope you’ll check out the rest of the works by these poets. We haven’t even scratched the surface yet of all the good stuff out there by these talented writers.

I’m going to end this year’s National Poetry Month series with one by Charlie Scott, my colleague and friend — and one of my poetry mentors from college. Speaking of college, news broke this week that the dorm complex where I lived when I attended there is going to be torn down. This news rallied literally hundreds of people who lived in those dorms within roughly the same decade and change to join together on Facebook and — reconnect.

Yes, many of us were already friends on Facebook. But prompted to share this news in a viral fashion, we found more than just each other. We found those we hadn’t kept in touch with. Friends of friends who were once friends of ours, like ripples in a pond, stretched in widening concentric circles until, within forty-eight hours, we had our own new Facebook group with (so far) 615 members (and counting — in fact, two more joined just since I started writing this blog post). People have been posting memories, anecdotes, photos.

I admit the volume of FB notifications has been overwhelming.

We’re planning a reunion before they raze the buildings. But honestly we’re having the reunion already, and it’s wonderful, and I cannot wait to be at that party and see so many people after the decades we’ve been apart. We’ll have to plan it far enough in advance for everyone to come back from the four corners of the country, from the outer bands of the planet. People are talking about doing this, and I hope they’re serious.

Bittersweet in all of this, of course, is that not all of us are still around. People have died. Our classmates, our friends. They died young and tragically and left so many behind. Some of them still have active Facebook accounts, and on the anniversaries of their births, Facebook reminds is to wish them a happy birthday and offers us a chance to send them a gift.

And we remember them, with love and fondness and occasionally the temptation to get, as Tim O’Brien cautioned against, sentimental about the dead. But we do not forget; we cling. And the fact that we can? That in itself is a gift.

 

***

 

ELEGY: TO BOB

 

Funny thing. When I sign up
for an on-line account
of some kind and am asked
to answer one of those
“security questions,” that question
has on occasion been, “What
was the last name of your first
childhood friend?” More
often than not (and I guess here
I’m handing all you hackers
out there a freebee), my answer
to this query has been
“Jordan.” The good thing is that
that answer will be always
the correct and, shall we say, perfect
one. Those memories do not
vanish. They persist. But people do
vanish and they don’t
persist, and when they do and do
not, my goodness, that’s bad.

 

***

 

Charlie Scott has published one full-length collection of poetry, So Much for Borders, and two chapbooks, The River Is Laughter and Methodoglia1. His poetry has appeared in several journals, including The New RepublicThe Antioch Review, Western Humanities Review, and Zocalo Public Square.

 

 

 

Featured Poet: The Bard

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday (observed), and I ran across one of his sonnets today that I didn’t remember having read before (though maybe I did in college).

 

***

 

Sonnet 73

 

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

***

 

Do I really need to give you biographical information about William Shakespeare? How about this: he wasn’t Francis Bacon.

A Poem, A Lament

In the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, I remember people making the comment that in times of national tragedy it was natural to turn to the arts.  That in moments of unspeakable sadness and incomprehensible horror, sometimes rhetoric and punditry fall even shorter than usual in helping us to heal.

Yesterday morning, I cried after I dropped my son off at kindergarten, even though I teach at his school, even though our campus is far more secure than most.  I held it together until he kissed me goodbye and bounced, laughing, off with his friends.  And then I couldn’t hold it together any more.  My husband, who dropped our daughter off at the same school later in the morning, had the same experience.

Today was a little better.

I’ve been told that on The Voice, they made an incredible tribute to the Sandy Hook victims.  Everyone stood onstage together, each holding a sign bearing a single name, and sang Leonard Cohen’s heartbreakingly beautiful “Hallelujah.”  I love that song, and one day I might feel strong enough to look up the clip on YouTube, but today is not that day.

I’d like to offer you this little gift, reposted here with permission from the author.  This poem originally appeared in Cortland Review.

***

“The Man Who Looks Lost as He Stands in the Sympathy Card Section at Hallmark”

by Matthew Olzmann

 

The man who looks lost as he stands
in the sympathy card section at Hallmark
looks so sad with his bent umbrella
that you want to place a hand on his shoulder,
say, “It’ll be Okay.” But you don’t.
Because you also look like a crumbling statue
narrowed by rain, because you too have been abandoned
by language and what’s there to speak of or write
among so many words. There are not enough words
to say, Someone is gone and in their place
is a blue sound that only fits inside
an urn which you’ll drag to the mountains
or empty in an ocean with the hope
that the tide will deliver a message
that you never could.
 Because even those words
would end like a shipwreck at the bottom
of clear water. Someone would eventually look down,
notice the shattered hull, the mast
snapped in half, and believe those words
meant ruin, when they really meant,
starfish, iceberg, or scar tissue.
And even those words would fail. In this room
that smells like lemon candle wax and wild berry
potpourri, you pick up a card, set
it down again. Pick up a card, toss
it aside. In leaving, you take only an empty envelope.
Or you are an empty envelope. Or you’re the boat
searching for the glacier to gouge its side again.
You’re the door that opens to the sleet outside.
You’re the bell that bangs above the door as the door slams shut.

 

Remembering the Challenger

On January 28, 1986, I was in sixth grade at the St. Francis de Sales parish school in Houston.  We were changing classes between religion and social studies.  It was a Tuesday, so we were on a short-day schedule and had five classes before lunch instead of four.  Social studies was fifth.

All the classrooms had TVs in them, which we used occasionally for important events, like the attempted assassination of President Reagan, like the Astros actually making it to the World Series.  Like the day a faulty O-ring, as we would later be told, disastered the space shuttle across an indigo sky.

All the teachers went to watch the news reports in the library together and left the kids alone in the classrooms with the TVs on.  I watched the replays of the explosion a few times and then, in my typical anxiety response, sat down and started copying the notes for class off the board while everyone else jumped around excitedly, perhaps in fear or awe.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the shape of the cloud, the Y-split, the bulbous contrails of grief and despair, nor of the face of Christa McAuliffe’s husband as he watched the shuttle unfold itself into a brief fire, then a billowing slingshot of destruction, then finally a silent, dripping trail of sadness and disbelief highlit against the too-dark blue of the lower stratosphere.

I recently came across this article, posted about a year ago, which clarified some of the nation’s myths about the Challenger.  In theory, I like knowing that the way we remember things is not always accurate but can be remedied.  However, in this case, some of the details might just be worse than the myths in which we enshrouded ourselves.  http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11031097/#.TyOHEZgqMfE

The day the shuttle broke apart, we were sent home from school earlier than usual.  The sky above Houston was turquoise, perfect, unbroken by clouds or contrails or debris.  I went out to the swingset in my backyard, where I’d spent most of my free time since I’d turned five, and thought about President Reagan’s address to the nation, how he’d called the astronauts heroes, how he’d likened them to stars in the firmament.  The mid-afternoon sun was piercing, the air a little cold.  I swung up higher, higher, higher until my eyes closed from the bright searing light, until my eyelids closed upon a red semi-darkness, until I couldn’t reach any higher without slackening the chains holding my swing to the set.

On what I determined would be my final climb, I took a deep breath and leaped into the air.  I don’t remember my fall.  I don’t remember my body’s arc across the yard.  I remember only the brightness, the sky that touched all the way to the ground, the suspension of everything that had ever mattered.  The brief, brief flight of a bird I never was.

Hallowe’en Routines

My son awakened me the other day, his beautiful blonde dumpling noggin very close to mine at the side of my bed, saying, “Mommy, I didn’t have an accident.  I need fruit snacks.”

It was still dark outside.  It was so dark, in fact, that the sun wouldn’t be rising for a couple more hours.  Groggily I registered this fact, and then reflected on the relative merits of pushing the kids’ bedtime back a little bit so they wouldn’t wake up so early.

“Mommy, fruit snacks,” he continued, reminding me of the bribe we’ve offered him for not wetting the bed.  (And yes, that method is the current expert opinion.)  “Mommy, please.  I didn’t have an accident.”

“Okay, sweetie, just a minute,” I said.  “I’m proud of you for staying dry.”

“Me too.  Can I have my fruit snacks now?  I even got myself dressed.”

I rubbed my eyes and tried to focus them, thought I bet I’m going to need glasses soon, and then finally saw that he was in fact dressed for school.  Even his little leather belt was around his waist.  It was over his untucked shirt instead of through his belt loops, but we’ll take that.

By now Daddy was awake, too, and lauding our little man on his morning’s accomplishments.  Our son is four years old, and these little milestones are a big and welcome deal, one that, in the not-too-distant past, we felt like we wouldn’t ever see.

I rolled out of bed and paddled down to the kitchen to get the fruit snacks, rewarded him, and then decided it was in fact late enough for me to be up and in the shower.  The morning routine commenced, and I was grateful it didn’t start with whiny, sleep-deprived children resisting the sullen call of the Wake-Up-For-School Fairy (also known as a cranky parent who really could have had another three or four hours of sleep, too, thanks very much).

They say that, when training one’s very young children, three days of a consistent pattern establishes a routine.  So sleep training and potty training and brush-your-teeth training and stories and songs at bedtime, as well as a host of other things, need only three days or nights in a row to become habit.  This is delightful rhetoric, an optimistic forecast that many parents will probably laugh at in hindsight.

As much as I enjoy a certain degree of spontaneity in my life, I have to admit I am a creature of habit, one who appreciates routine and order, even if I’m not great at maintaining them myself.  Routine and order are predictable, stable, familiar.  They are a safeguard against anxiety.  They make enormous tasks conquerable.  They give us something to hold onto when our lives go spiraling out of control.

* * *

Hallowe’en is one of my favorite holidays — second, in fact, only to Christmas.  I consider it the official kick-off to the holiday season, the very best time of year.  In the autumn, the weather is better, everything feels festive, the semester is winding down to its glorious end, and people in general are more generous and kind and happy.

Yes, of course I’m generalizing.  I’m sweeping broad strokes across my palette of existence.  This leaves me able to appreciate the specific details of every holiday season in a fresh way, since those details tend to shift around in surprising little moments.  Most of the time they are happy or pleasant at least.  And yes, “real life” still intrudes sometimes.  But if I pan out from the scene and look from a wide angle, I will see that life is very good, and I will count my blessings and be grateful.  I don’t want to forget to do that, though it can be easy to do so in the crazy-hectic routine of every day.

* * *

When I was in eighth grade, my social circle consisted of very few people.  There were a couple of other kids in my class at school whom I was sometimes friends with, but mostly I was dramatically unpopular.  I had been at that awful school since kindergarten, and although I’d had friends in the elementary grades, over the years they’d moved away, been held back a year, decided I was just too weird for them — whatever.  By eighth grade, all I could think about was graduating and moving on to high school.  Sure, most of the kids I had gone to junior high with would be there with me — the girls at least:  this was Catholic school, after all — but all the other Catholic grade schools in Houston and some of the public ones, too, would be feeding in as well, and so the potential for friendship would yawn wide like the Grand Canyon.

I did have two very good friends, however, though neither was my age and neither attended my school.  They were two of my first cousins, Meredith and Chuck.  Chuck was in sixth grade, Meredith in fourth, and because our large extended family tended to get together a lot on the weekends, I could reliably depend on something like a social life, and so the trauma of having to go to school every day where I was, for all intents and purposes, treated like a bug, was lessened a little bit.

On Hallowe’en, that year I was in eighth grade, my twelve-year-old cousin Chuck died.  It was unexpected.  He’d been in the hospital three days.  He’d been diagnosed earlier that week with what my mother referred to as “acute adult leukemia,” and then in the hospital he’d contracted strep throat.  That afternoon — it was a Saturday — they’d turned off his life support, and the shell of a precious boy who had once been my cousin was no more.

* * *

I would spend the next six weeks crying myself to sleep, unable to articulate to anyone what I was going through, but the days following the death were undoubtedly horrendous for everyone.  I remember the tortured face of my Great-Aunt Mary, leading the San Antonio contingent, climbing the steps to my cousins’ front porch with arms flung open to embrace my grieving uncle.  I remember Sister Jane, the principal of the high school I would be attending next year, coming over because Chuck’s older sister was already in ninth grade there, and Sister Jane knew it was her duty to come.

The monsignor at my school, Father James Dinkins, did not come to my house, or to my cousin’s house.  At the All Saints’ Day Mass Monday morning, his homily in front of the entire school was about an experience he’d had as an adolescent, when his twelve-year-old cousin had died of leukemia.  I remember nothing else about his sermon except that it seemed strange he would have had any experience like mine, and I assumed he was making it all up, straight out of The Catcher in the Rye, directing his homily at me without making eye contact, without offering me or my family a word of direct support, even though we’d been in the parish for years longer than he had.  He appreciated my family’s tithes, that much I knew, but that was where the social contract ended.

That afternoon, he paid a visit to my eighth grade class, and after a few words of pleasant greeting with everyone in general and a little discussion about what everyone had done for Hallowe’en, he walked right up to my desk and said jovially, “I understand you had a very interesting weekend,” as if I’d gone white-water rafting or deer hunting for the first time.

“Yes,” I said quietly.

“Do you want to tell us about it?” he asked.  I glanced at my teacher.  She looked taut, ready to spring into action, assuming her help would be needed or welcome, or permitted.  The priest was between her and me.  I shifted in my desk.

“My cousin died,” I said.

“What was that?” he asked, leaning his ear over.  I could detect whispers in the room around me.

I cleared my throat.  “My cousin died.  He was twelve.  He had leukemia.”

“Oh, that’s very interesting,” Father Dinkins said, standing straight again.  I excused myself to the bathroom and didn’t come back for a while.  When I returned, he was still chatting pleasantly with the class, no doubt about something dogmatic and theological.  He and I did not make eye contact again.  I heard from my parents later that when the news of our family’s tragedy broke, our pastor said, “The Jamails are a big family.  They will console themselves.”

* * *

I didn’t know how to mourn something so profound as the death of one of my best friends.  I quit playing the piano and even stopped, for a while, writing stories.  I began wearing black on the weekends.  I tried to find as many pictures of my cousin as possible to make a collage for my room until my mother scolded me not to build a shrine.  Everyone was sad, my grandmother explained, enfolding me in a hug and telling me I needed to stop crying.

At school a couple of boys who sat next to me in science class asked me, “Are you mourning?”

I nodded my head.  “Yes, I am.”

“Are you nighttime?”  Their punchline, hilarious to them, stung me just the way it was supposed to, and I swallowed my grief down, understanding that it was not a safe thing to show.

Eventually, what saved me from a crippling sadness was stoic routine.  I had things to do.  Tests to study for.  A school newspaper column to write.  Essay contests and spelling bees to win.  That grade school to put behind me as I embarked on a hopeful time, high school.  Eventually, life continued on at its genial pace, and all the grief I and my entire family was feeling got tucked away into the corners of our traditions, one more new wrinkle to incorporate.

* * *

I got back to celebrating Hallowe’en slowly at first.  Even though I still dressed up and participated in parties and trick-or-treating, it was a long time before I could look at my candy bucket and not remember the handfuls of Jolly Ranchers and tiny Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that had been dropped into my cousin’s casket with him by his classmates.  I spent about a decade letting my grief for him be the go-to sadness I defaulted to when I was feeling depressed, the thing I most remembered when someone else died, the gravitas that I, as a young adolescent, could not shake and which fed my Otherness.

I’ve never been much of a drinker.  The only time I’ve ever drunk alone was on what would have been Chuck’s twenty-first birthday.  I had just broken up with a boyfriend whom I should have kicked to the curb six months before.  He wasn’t dealing well with the break-up and wanted really badly to be friends.  I went to a pub and ordered myself dinner and an imposing pint of Ace Pear in honor of my cousin.  The boy I’d just dumped showed up at the tail end of it, invading my solitude, and I let him listen to stories about my cousin.  He looked eager and supportive and hopeful.  I told him good-bye and left him at the table without even a glance over my shoulder.

Later, at home, I launched myself into my routine, locking my grief back into the recesses of my heart for what I hoped would be the last painful time.

* * *

It’s been nearly twenty-five years since my cousin died, and here I am writing about it — which I hadn’t really intended to do when I sat down to write today.  Hallowe’en is a big holiday at my house now.  And in my immediate family.  Again.  My parents picked the holiday back up once I had children of my own.  Traditions, you know.  Comfortable, familiar habits.  Costumes, candy, knocking on strangers’ doors in search of treats that will bring the little ones joy.

We put out decorations every year:  witches, spiders, pumpkins with knowing grins.  And always ghosts, the representation of our collective fears and hopes about the afterlife.  We traipse around on what the old religions tell us is the night when the veil between the worlds — those of the living and the dead — is the thinnest.  We light candles.  We don’t tell the kids they can’t eat candy before bedtime and with breakfast the next morning.  We watch Tim Burton movies.  We dress ourselves in costumes, costumes, costumes.  My girlfriends are I wear pointy hats to tea.

And then we put it all away until next year. We focus on Thanksgiving.  The guest list, the order at the butcher’s market.  The sculpted turkey with a double-fan scrollwork tail I put on the mantel for decoration.  The ceramic pumpkin tureen and little pumpkin bowls which will hold my famous creamy pumpkin soup in just a few short weeks.  And the discussions with my husband over what we’re going to get the kids for Christmas this year.  The ghosts recede, and this too is their habit.

Ah, routine.