. . . and no one knew who I was, an unremarkable fact that I nevertheless found refreshing and humbling at the same time. I arrived too late to sign up myself, as I have witnessed other people do countless times at the poetry slam series I help run, and in a moment of integrity and maturity, I acted the way I always hope they will act in such situations, which is to sit down and enjoy the show. We were in Brooklyn, after all, the beloved home of Walt Whitman, who once famously wrote that great poetry requires “great audiences.” The world needs more people willing to listen.
The Jalopy Theater is a curious little gem of a space at the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel a short bike ride from my house. It’s not quite Red Hook, I think, and too low and west to be part of Cobble Hill or Carroll Gardens, a typical Brooklyn neighborhood in that it is easier to say where it is not. It’s the ground floor performance space of an adult “roots” music school, and indeed many of the performers had just finished their evening classes. That’s right, it was an “open” mic where every single person called to the stage was a musician. I asked the organizer on the way out “Do you ever have poets?” and he said that it was a truly open mike, “so you can do whatever you want.” I resisted the urge to tell him that was not an answer to the question I asked, and just inferred that he meant “No, not in a long time.”
These were not word people, which was fun. One bearded dude sat down at the mic and said, “I’ve got a couple songs to play for you, and I hope you like it.” I smiled and looked around, hoping to make eye contact with the owner of another pair of smug and captious ears like mine—a half-dozen of which I could have found at my own venue—and found . . . nothing. No other grammar nerd looking around for corroboration and confirmation of his or her own superiority. These were singers, songwriters, and musicians: they have other skills and other concerns. And so they played. And they were good! Shaky, sure, and tentative at first, but everyone blooming a little under the nurturing rays of public scrutiny.
It was Tuesday night, June 10. And I was only there because the regular Tuesday poetry slam that I help curate in Manhattan—Urbana—happens to be on one of its two monthlong summer breaks. If I am ever to be found at The Jalopy Theater on a Tuesday night, it must be June or August. That’s the one downside of running your own series: that night of the week is simply unavailable to you; since I almost ALWAYS have something to do on Tuesdays, I can rarely do ANYTHING (else). It was great to be out of the house on a Tuesday and NOT to be doing anything other than listening to others play music.
I performed poems at a singer-songwriter open mic once before, and it was wonderful because they so rarely saw anyone like me in their circles. It was there that I met Jennifer Marks, maybe 15 years ago (a quick search turned up this gem from her website: “Hey there everyone. I hope that 2005 brings you everything you hope and wish for. I don’t make New Years resolutions but if I were to make one it would be to update my site more often.”) Jennifer said to me (and I’m paraphrasing now), “Musicians never get to see anyone like you! We tend to hide behind our instruments. No one here tonight could imagine standing in front of an audience armed with nothing but our words. You reminded us that words alone have incredible power if you know how to use them.”
So I’ll be going to the Jalopy Theater next Tuesday night, June 17th. But this time, I’ll get there by 8:45 pm in time to sign up. I’ll do my two “songs” like everyone else, and spend the rest of the time listening.