Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Summer of Sam, Pt. 1: Seattle, WA

Seattle, WA

Hedgebrook Retreat for women writers throws an annual fundraiser in Seattle. Much Depends Upon Dinner: a $1,000 a plate dinner in a swanky location, 50 seats open to only women, a family style meal cooked by the finest female chefs Seattle has to offer, and most importantly, writers. Fly writers. Female writers. Inspiring writers, reading their work throughout the evening.

So when HB asked me to MC and as well as featured alongside Gloria Steinem, Stephanie Kallos and Nassim Assefi, I said hell yes! So I secured two more gigs in the area and off to Washington I went, the first stop of my Summer of Sam Tour.

Poetrynight in Bellingham was to be my first public appearance for the week. I would later be delighted to find that my summer tour couldn't have started off on a better mic. Nicole, who housed and spoiled me, let me borrow her wheels for the night since Bellingham was 2 hours from Seattle. I deeply appreaciated her trust and the opportunity to relive my road warrior days. I had sold my black bullet upon moving to New York and though I don't miss driving on a daily basis, I miss it every time I do it again.

I drove to lovely Bellingham with the silence of a samurai, poems in my brain begging to be voiced to this new set of ears. I decided in the end to do solely odes, my obsession for the past year. Man, the Poetrynight vibe was exuberant and warm, just like the walls of the cafe. Old school cat on a standing bass, playing throughout the night. Slug killer poster on the bathroom wall. The Podfather of Soul, tabulating slam scores. Writing that contained so much grace and integrity. And then there was Robert, a killer host with the kind of generous energy that he spreads so evenly across the night, Robert who I wished I could have spent more time with. But I had to head back to Seattle right after the show; once again I had a two hour drive ahead of me and half asleep was not the way to do it. I learned that lesson once before the soft way.

My second gig in the area was Seattle Slam, which in conjunction with Bellingham has made me an eternal fan of the Seattle scene. Daemond, the engine behind it all showed me a lot of love after my set. Again, I couldn't help but drench the audience with odes: slug, picking blackberries, twins, trojan, starfig, gentrification, apron, mermaids--well, you get the idea. Good thing was, the audience was totally game and I felt very confident standing before them, naked in my vunlerable, whimsical, indulgent, and sometimes silly ode poetry.

The third event was the big one, the one that flew me out that way. Much Depends Upon Dinner. So it was held in this place called the Sanctuary, which used to be this Christian Science church--a stunning establishment in West Seattle on a clandestine block, partly shielded by trees. Since CS is on the endangered species list of religions, the membership of the church dwindled to sawdust so they eventually had to sell it. An independantly wealthy real estate broker acquired it at some point and lived in it with her two daughters. I walked into the sanctuary; the place was exquisite and a rather outlandish place to live--but hey, if you could, why not? She since moved out and now rents it out for functions such as this. Large painted portraits of her daughters still hang on the walls to cover up quotes by the founder of Christian science, Mary Baker Eddy.

The tables were set up in long rows. There was an open bar, the special drink of the night, lavendar martinis, the lavendar coming straight from the Korean lady's lavendar farm around the corner from Hedgebrook. If I wasn't such an integral part of the evening, I would have been knocking those back like it was nobody's business. But I restrained myself with two--or was it three? People socialized a bit but once all the women were seated in the big open dining area, I kicked the evening off with Ode to Picking Blackberries from the balcony that overlooked the whole scene. Surprised by the tactic, the audience looked up at me in awe, like they were all girls again. From my recollections, it was my first time performing from a balcony. It was so dramatic for no reason. I loved it. Juliet all the way. And later, for further dramatic effect, I performed Ode to Apron wearing one. My first time doing that, too.

I also vibed hard with Nassim Assefi, and Iranian novelist who just came back from the middle east. A doctor by trade she made a switch in her life by taking on her writing as a career and now she practices medicine just for fun--all over the world! How fly is that?

Gloria Steinem showed up looking smart and lovely in her all black--pants and a simple top, clean lines--a rocking red bag. I loved her energy as she greeted me with a warm sisterly embrace, with a curious familiarity, as if we had met once or twice before. When it was her time to speak she thanked me for "rescuing poetry from obscurity." She read from her next nonfiction project on her life as an organizer and this particular essay was about discerning the surreal of every day life. She's been excersizing the practice of, well, looking for the surreal in every day life. For instance, I find it surreal that Walt Staton, a volunteer for this organization "No More Deaths" was arrested and charged for littering. Want to know why? For leaving jugs of water in the desert, a nature preserve, for the illegal families that cross those lands and so often die of thirst from doing so. He was sentenced to 300 hours of community service of picking up trash on the highway.

Thats my first stab at discerning the kind of surreal Gloria is talking about. She herself had some damn compelling examples, but you'll just have to wait till the book drops to find out what they are :)

The next evening was a town hall Hedgebrook put together starring Gloria, legendary folk singer Holly Near, Nassim, Stephanie Kallos and Pramila Jayapal. I was not familiar with Holly's music prior to meeting her but since then I have become hip to her. Later, after we bonded she was kind enough to slide me some of her CD's and I looooove her music! Wow! Where has this woman been all my life? A fierce sassy freedom fighter, she is. Holly's songs are sonorous weapons against war, sexism, homophobia, oppressions and woes of all kinds. Though she approaches her art with so much love for whoever she is directing her songs toward.That's the fiercest thing about her work is the generosity of her love even in a musical onslaught of critique. Hugely inspiring. She has lived an amazing life, knee deep in the times.

The auditorium was packed with 800 people solid, sold out, line down the block. The moment the panelists appeared on stage the anxious audience stood up clapping long and hard. The exuberance in the room for both Gloria and Holly, the stars of the evening, was infectious. HB had asked me to open up the evening with a poem of my choice, so I chose Audre Lorde's "Litany for Survival", a manifesto in itself. I was followed by two other Hedgebrook alums who read poems by Sylvia Plath and June Jordan.

The panelists then spent the next hour in conversation about women writers that have altered their realities. A nice thing to think about isn't it? After a lush two hours of conversation, Holly singing in between, and questions from the audience (some of them not questions, but pontifications and declarations and testimonies), i ended the evening with my poem, "House of the Rising Daughter" a poem I had written last year on the birth of singer Eddie Vedder's baby girl. Really though, its a celebratory meditation on all the little warrior goddesses arriving into these chaotic times.Call it another ode, if you will. It was a cool experience to perform that poem in Vedder's hometown. I had not occured to me to mention who I had written it specifically for but Gloria suggested I do as she felt it would resonate in a special way with the audience, and it did.

All in all, I felt honored and blessed to have opened and closed the evening, and loved sitting off to the side, letting the wisdom of these brilliant women wash over my consciousness like ocean waves. I left Seattle that night, and journeyed to Whidbey Island for the weekend to join Gloria, Holly, and the other sisters currently in residence at Hedgebrook.