I remember being nearly grabbed and flung out the door. Once I found out why I was being included in some invincible circle of guys now entering an old VW van I was less excited. Oh, you guys are going to a poetry reading. I do remember liking the fact that I was now being handed a beer and liking the music as the conversation started and the van sped off. I was instantly subsumed by a conversation about girls and the dramas that ensued after any interaction with them, buying a new pair of silver Doc Martins, and vintage jazz records. It seemed there was a conversation about whether anyone could really be compared to Miles Davis on the trumpet. No one seemed to mind that we were listening to The Misfits but talking about Miles Davis. In these conversations, Eli always held court. An 18-year-old Jewish guy who vaguely resembled a young Allen Ginsberg, Eli wore a pair of vintage horn-rimmed glasses with futuristic clear plastic frames, and although he looked somewhat punk, his speech patterns and knowledge of jazz cast him as more of a self-styled Beat. Everyone paused when Eli offered a comment about jazz trumpet. “Clifford Brown, just picked up another album yesterday. Has to be checked out, man. Has to be. I mean, that’s necessary. This guy has a complexity that is like geometric or something. I mean, Miles, he casts a spell but don’t forget about Clifford Brown. Kaleidoscopic.” Everyone in the van seemed to ruminate on the word kaleidoscopic for a solid minute. We stared harder than usual out the windows that day.
There was something about Eli’s observations that sometimes made him seem otherworldly. Eli had lived for a short while in Northern California and his natural disapproving facial expression gave him some air of complex superiority. A certain kind of kid would follow Eli around forever after 5 minutes with him, sensing that Eli was a font of copious helpings of knowledge. Eli also seemed to always have weed on him. Other than chain-smoking Camels, Eli could be counted on to always have just one more roach. Suddenly a voice rose up from the back. A flannel-clad Steve, was asking about this poetry reading. Eli responded that we were going to a poetry “slam” and he said it with a certain odd gravitas. We stopped short of glancing at one another and yet wondered without vocalizing it. “What’s a poetry slam?” We would soon find out.
We made our way down Third Street from the suburbs toward the center of town. Dayton, Ohio. On a Saturday it was hard to tell who might be out and about. If it was summer, there were bound to be a fairly wide variety of people. No crowds but always the predictable panhandlers. Some fastidiously dressed, some looking like rocked-out zombies. Hispanic mothers with a child or two. Poindexter guys in their 30s walking alone, looking for a deal at the local record shop, meeting a friend for a movie, or on the way to one of the porn shops. Kids with frisbees. Stray dogs. Dayton was a contradiction. On most weekends it resembled a welcoming ghost town.
The van puttered along through the streets and we soaked it up. A Bible store complete with blinking marquee could be found right next to a porn shop advertising Anal Bangers 5. Another of the inhabitants of the VW van offered a comment. “Eli are you going to read?” Eli looked up as Steve lit a clove cigarette and the scent wafted throughout the van, mixing with the smell of old cheap beer and Saturday nights. Eli answered with a knowing wink and said nothing. We knew we were in for something but nobody but Eli seemed to know what. The van was parked a few blocks away and on the trek to Canal Street Tavern we all felt a camaraderie of some kind but Eli seemed distant.
Eli had the sense of purpose of a samurai warrior roaming the countryside à la Yojimbo. Confidant yet somehow distrusting and vaguely shifty, I noticed that Eli seemed a little bit anxious and walked a bit quicker to catch up to him. I started to recite a bit of poem I was reading the night before “Among twenty snowy mountains, /The only moving thing /Was the eye of the blackbird.” Eli smiled and responded with the mash-up “Where are we going, Wallace Stevens?/The doors close in an hour./Which way does your beard point tonight?” Eli claimed not to like Allen Ginsberg’s poetry but he seemed very familiar with it. We’d argued recently about surrealist poetry and Eli compared much of it to intellectual Mad Libs and I couldn’t convince him otherwise.
Poetry for Eli existed so he could divulge his secrets, exact revenge on enemies, and also win over new loves. In that sense, he had way more balls about putting himself out there in front of an audience, dropping literary asides, and adopting a persona that was a cross between a James Dean wannabe, a stand up comedian, and a villain from the 1960s TV show Batman. Eli would take notes during most poetry readings and work clever hints about other people’s poems into his own nascent pieces. When he read them it was understood immediately whether he was offering up a flattering portrait or using the shout-out as a prop to illustrate what a shit the poet in question really was. Either way, when Eli got up to read, people listened. There was no clinking of glasses or whispered side conversations. Eli’s poetry also produced snickers and laughs. People truly got it, which was one of the points of contention between us. I once mentioned that the best poems produce a silence and he thought that was a heresy of some sort. Eli was a huge gossip and poetry was his AK-47, which he spewed blithely at the audience. Either you were completely with him on his ride or not. This is also why he had a couple of avowed enemies. Usually when we left these readings as a small group it was half-likely that someone would want to step up to Eli, most likely to offer a compliment but he also always glanced around nervously because he was fully aware that there were a few audience members who would gladly punch him straight in the face given an opportunity.
We entered the Canal Street Tavern for the first “poetry slam.” There was a small crowd of mostly familiar faces. At that time if you could pass for 19 years of age, you could be served a beer at Canal Street, no questions asked. A Miller High Life tallboy could then be smuggled into the bathroom and given to the person who actually paid for it who would proceed to chug it down within seconds. These poetry slams I would learn were considered “all age shows.” That meant there were usually a few giggling gaggles of high school girls who always dressed like acolytes of the band The Cure. To wear all black and sport a crucifix and wear heavy eyeliner and reek of patchouli was still rather novel at the time. No one had yet described these dark young girls, mostly fans of The Cure and The Smiths and possibly also Depeche Mode, as being “goth.” Being that everyone in my crew had recently turned 18, we thought of ourselves as old and above it and tried our best to avoid anyone still in high school.
I did notice that Cara was sitting at the bar. Wearing fishnet stockings and a pair of Doc Martins and a jean shorts/flannel shirt combo with dark purple hair, she seemed more sophisticated than any of the friends I rolled with. In fact, she was sitting at a slight distance from them and tipped her head back for a second when she saw me, which to my disbelief was a quasi-acknowledgment of my presence. This hadn’t happened before and I realized, as sweat broke out on the back of my neck, that I would have to get on that stage and deliver or this moment would pass and Cara would most likely forget about me forever. I don’t really remember how I managed this minor epiphany and also mounted a line of attack in such a short amount of time. I hadn’t brought any of my own amateurish poetry to read, and what little poetry I had actually memorized would not go over well with this crowd, which was a conclusion I reached very quickly after scanning the room and seeing a guy applying the Public Image Limited band logo with a magic marker to a ukelele.
I had to act fast. Eli had already set up camp in a far corner with his ever-present cup of coffee, pen in hand, sitting cross-legged on a chair, applying the finishing touches to whatever snark-ridden piece he’d decided to perform. The piece of information that had not yet reached my ears was what a “poetry slam” actually was. I had no idea that the point of this event was to not necessarily elicit an audience reaction but at the very least be prepared for it. Especially if it was bad. Had I known, I probably would not have gone through with my hastily hatched plan to get Cara into some state of mind where she would at least consider making out with me. I glanced over at her again and in my fevered state I actually believed she was looking in my general direction by using the mirror behind the bar. I doubt she was thinking about much more than the array of neon beer signs that the bartender had finally switched on. I mean, this place just opened and it’s Saturday afternoon. I must have a solid 5 minutes to write some genius poem that will demonstrate, finally, to Cara how funny and therefore sexy I thought I was.
I slid into a booth near Eli and could tell he didn’t want to be bothered but soon he was rifling through his rucksack to hand me the pen and slip of paper I had asked him for. The next move found me sauntering back toward the front door to make my way out of the building. I planned to sit in the alley behind Canal Street to have 5 minutes alone to write. Now I needed a cigarette. No time. I nearly jogged behind the building to find 3 guys sharing a bottle in a bag. I stopped for what seemed like a mini-eternity because I knew there would be no other spot for me to really concentrate. One of the guys motioned for me to come over and to my surprise I did.
They all looked like they were 100 years old. Haggard and worn out. I was being passed a bottle of mystery booze and I took it and proceeded to take a big slug. Instantly I felt the burn of some kind of rotgut whisky but also a self-confidence. I sat down on a crumbled parking block next to this trio of filth and nearly instantly had an idea that I wrote down as fast as it came. I signaled to these generous old guys that I had to run and, head whirling, I was suddenly standing again at the entrance to Canal Street.
I must’ve been outside a bit longer than I thought because my crew of poet types were all sitting together at the side wall and the lights had been dimmed. A few more characters had filtered in and despite the light of a summer afternoon, inside the tavern it felt more like being in the dark guts of an old ship or a casino. Magical neon signs advertising Miller High Life, Black Label, Wiedemann, Little Kings, Schaefer, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, beckoned another few patrons to grab a last beer before the festivities began.
I had a slight head rush as I lingered for just a minute near the card table set up near the entrance. A voice from the darkness asked “are you reading?” and I answered “damn right.” I didn’t feel like myself and noticed Eli across the room sort of glowering in my general direction and Steve looking amused, probably wondering what I was up to outside and why I hadn’t invited him. Still not knowing what a poetry slam was and noticing Cara sitting at the bar but now facing the stage, I heard my name being called and for a hot minute the room grew quiet.
I hadn’t expected to go first and to have to get right up in front of the room right after emerging from that whisky-fueled huddle in the alley with my new found friends but in my sudden drunkenness I understood the logic of getting up immediately to share with the world what I’d just written. Why not? Eli started a slow clap and some nameless figure in the back gave a slight guffaw and I quickly took the few steps up the stage and now stood behind a microphone and a stool. I set the stool aside and looked up for a second at the blinding spotlight above me. I heard a wiseass in the audience call out “you’re on a stage” and then chuckle stupidly. Next I saw a trembling hand gripping a rumpled sheet of paper coming into my field of vision and words were coming from my mouth. People listened. I was hooked.