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A First Poetry Reading
2003-03-23

s much as I like to dress like a cowboy -- which is, frankly, far too much -- my old boots and 10-gallon-hat just don't seem the right habiliments for when I read my poetry, and so this week I reverted back to an older look. I used to call in "1930s movie star," but everybody else calls it "1970s gay neighbor," probably because I wrap a silk scarf around my neck, ascot-like. But I don't care whether I look like I should be prowling the haunted floor at Ciro's or loitering in some dimly lit bar discussing Bette Davis movies; it's a look that suits me. I was asked to read poetry last night, and have spent the past month hunkered down in my apartment, wheezing with the residue of a flu and thinking about war. I have done little but watch the mess in my apartment as it moved to fill every available space, send out emails looking for writing jobs, and work on this Webpage. My hair had grown long and shaggy and my chin bristled with an ill-shaped, gray-speckled beard. My shoulders had slumped, my eyes had developed a permanent reddish hue. It was, in a word, time to revamp myself.

So on Friday I got my haircut. I go to a barber in downtown Omaha, an ex-Marine named Bender, who is a cheerful, chatty man who is incapable of offering haircuts in any style other than a variation of the flattop. This suits me just fine -- there are few experiences I enjoy less that emerging from a barbershop with my hair teased and blow-dried like some balder version of Erik Estrada in C.H.i.P.S. There is something peacock-like about my sartorial sensibilities, but in the style of a retirement home gigolo, rather than a disco-era lounge lizard. Bender was watching the war when he cut my hair, which alternately excited and frustrated him. "I was in the Second World War, you know," he told me. "We thought that was going to be the last war ever."

As he shaved off my mat of thin, shapeless hair, I watched missiles drop on Baghdad. I have no television reception in my home -- I would need cable for that, which I have not wanted to spend my dwindling funds on. This was the first time I had seen a televised broadcast of the attack on Iraq; my news has come off the Internet, which is usually fabulous, in that I can read an endless variety of news reports, including those from such unexpected locations as Egypt and Turkey. However, getting your news off the Internet is limiting in that the images of this war consist of small-sized JPEGs of tiny explosions of white. On television, the burning of Baghdad is an awesome spectacle, and it should be. It is a city we burn, and we should know what that looks like. It is not the Iraqis who should feel shock and awe at this undertaking. Iraq has had enough of shock and awe to last a millennium. It is, instead, the United States that should experience both the shock and the awe, and, rather than feel pride at our military magnificence, we should be sobered by it.

Bender's usual cheeriness was sobered. But, then, he has been to war, and knows a little of its shock and awe. He studiously gave me a tidy little haircut called an Ivy League, which is the sort of hairstyle I associate with the folk comedy duo the Smothers Brothers early in their career, and was just right for my revamped 1930s movie star/gay neighbor look. I headed home and shaved, trimming my beard off and whittling my moustache down to a John Waters-styled pencil-line thickness across the top of my lip. With this style of moustache, unless you are cursed with the sort of coarse black hair that would look appropriate sprouting off the back of a fly, you must actually darken it with an eyeliner pencil. Moustaches are out of fashion in general nowadays, but especially out of fashion are moustaches that must be drawn on and then set with clear powder. The world is very fickle as to where it will allow men to primp. A neat little soul patch and a pair of zigzag sideburns might be tolerated on modern hipsters, but, for the most part, anything else that smacks of vanity in the toilette is looked down upon for men. In fact, I would say that most men nowadays take a certain pride in the fact that they have not really advanced much, sartorially speaking, since they were in grade school. They wear the same striped T-shirts, affect the same moppish hairstyles, wear the same battered tennis shoes, and, when dressing to go out, throw on the same sort of slacks and sweater that a child would wear when dressed by their mother. This is true both of the slightly oversized young businessmen I see drinking in sportsbars on weekends, who inevitably look like 13-year-olds at a bar mitzvah, and with the crowds of emo kids who seem to be everywhere nowadays, and take great pride in dressing like the same thin, sallow-complexioned, sunken chested little boys you would find stuffed in lockers in high school. (Honestly, between musical sets I expect to see them all simulatenously reach for their athsma inhalers and their ear infection medication.) For whatever reason, male vanity has reverted back to adolescence, but not for me. When I dress for the evening, I wear a tuxedo, as I did last night, along with a straw boater. "I might be the Worst Poet in the World," I told my audience, "but I am the best dressed." And to prove it, I hoisted up the legs of my tuxedo pants and showed off my sock garters.

I was reading last night at a performance called Whoosh, which was a benefit for a scholarship fund offered through Omaha's Theatre Arts Guild. I wrote earlier about my first attempt at participating, in which I offered up a monologue about a drag queen who breaks their ankle after plummeting off the very overpass she had tried to urinate from the top of. Although I had been paired with an actor and a director, this monologue scared them silly, and they demurred, so I was invited to read my poetry instead. The event took place in a massive, three-story warehouse in the northeast corner of downtown Omaha, a building that has been taken over by artists, saddled with the unfortunate name "Hot Shops," and filled to bursting with intriguing examples of Omaha fine arts. Omaha has a rather robust fine arts scene, but this evening was given over to performing arts, with 27 performers crammed into every nook and cranny, performing an endless cycle of five-minute monologues authored by 22 writers. I was set up in a stairwell and given an assistant to help me round up small groups of people, who all seemed perplexed by the evening and even more perplexed by my poetry reading. Firstly, the all seemed confused to be in a stairwell. Secondly, they seemed bewildered when I informed them that I am the Worst Poet in the World ("not because I write bad poetry," I informed them, "although God knows that's true.") But mostly, because all of the evening's monologues were, in one way or another, related to cars. Nobody had informed me of this theme, and I wasn't observant enough to pick up on it on my own, and so absolutely nothing I read had anything to do with cars.

In the end, this didn't matter. The small crowds that filed through my stairwell seemed to enjoy my flamboyant presentation of my own poetry. I warned them that my writing gets a little risqué from time to time, and so, for the easily offended, I would raise my hand in warning whenever something truly shocking was about to emerge from my mouth, giving them the opportunity to cover their ears. Nobody did so. A few of my listeners stared at me in stony, impassive silence, mouths turned down in slight disapproval, but most laughed, and every group offered me a hearty applause when I finished. I passed out hundreds of my bookmarks, which list the address of this Webpage, so a few from my audience might peek in here over the next few days. I certainly did everything possible to encourage them. "Remember the Website!" I shouted at them as they filed out of the stairwell. "There's much more poetry on it, just like I read for you, and much, much worse!"

I have been meaning to read my dreadful poetry at slams and the like here in Omaha, but have been ambivalent about doing so. My experience with poetry readings in the past is that it is mostly poets reading to other poets, and, truth be told, I find much of what they read to be humorless, self-absorbed, and insufferable. Venues like Whoosh are more my style -- I loved the theatricality of the evening, and I loved the fact that my audience was, for the most part, not poets, but Omahans with a taste for art who were looking for a little adventure. I shall have to look for further venues such as this one for future poetry readings. There was something greatly satisfying about it, and, after a week that brought both a war and news of a friend's suicide, I ended last night as I wish I could end all nights. I lay in my bed and laughed myself to sleep.

Cheers!


© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.


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Posted by UkuleleKing at 9:20 a.m.

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