Im not exactly sure how I got to this point in my career as a poet. Twenty-three years ago I stood on stage and read a poem about pussy willows. I was 4. I was cute. I wore a red, white and blue dress. The audience clapped. Now I lead a group of writers who get paid to read poems about pussy.
Sounds shocking, I know, but its true. You wont read about it in The Wall Street Journal, but theres a steady demand on college campuses especially in the Northeast for spoken-word groups who read racy poetry and prose by, for and about women, especially queer women.
Granted, its difficult to parlay performances of prurient or political poems into a full-time career, though it has been and is being done. Alix Olson, the poster-girl for this poetic trend, was featured on the November 2000 cover of Ms. magazine. Shes also been on CNN, Fox News online, and in a spectacular array of fringe and mainstream publications. She performs works with titles like Dont Think Im Not a Nice Girl and Cunt Country.
But you dont have to be a superstar there are plenty of opportunities for enterprising young poets to earn a little extra cash. You write a bio, put it in a folder with some poems, and track down student organizers. The real trick is timing your pitch. National Coming Out Day happens in October, when most schools have a whole week devoted to queer-themed programming. April is double-bonus month its traditionally a time when gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender groups have a pride celebration, and its National Poetry Month.
Encouraged by Alix Olsons success, and by the work of the San Franciscobased spoken-word group Sister Spit, my writer friends and I decided to give the girl-tour a try. Weve been collaborating on a zine called Secrets Between Girls since 1998 and have done sporadic readings in the Burlington area. But it wasnt until recently that we got organized enough to embark on a real college tour.
Its true that I could have organized my own solo tour. But I write poems about farming, nuns and bodies of water, and the students who organize readings at colleges want us to stand on stage and say provocative things like vagina and cunt and fuck. Frankly, these words make me blush. Ive only used the f-word in one poem, ever, and even then its spoken by a nun.
Fortunately, my more daring, radical friends allow me to travel along with them. None of them have issues with speaking plainly. I appreciate that. Someone has to get on stage and reclaim the words that describe our bodies. I secretly love it when Kelly Griffith performs her vagina poem, especially the part where she talks about her vagina as if it were the Virgin Mary: My vagina full of grace, she proclaims in her most earnest, urgent, listen-to-me-I-bring-glad-tidings voice, blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
These women with whom I travel have piercings and tattoos. They wear provocative, stylish clothing. Theyre willing to ride together for hundreds of miles in the backseat of my 97 Saturn. We call ourselves Secrets Between Girls, and weve been to a college near you.
Our April 2002 Secrets Between Girls college tour included stops at Mt. Holyoke College, Yale University, Castleton State College and the University of Vermont.
Seven of us read: myself, Kerry Slora, Kelly Griffith, Elaine Day, Hannah Hafter, Charis Boke and Michelle Fleming. Michelle actually flew in from Portland, Oregon, with her 4-year-old son Keegan.
After months of planning, we set out for Mt. Holyoke on April 5th. The reading went well. We didnt sell many books, but there were 40 or so students there, and we got an enthusiastic reception. But though we were excited about Mt. Holyoke, it was Yale wed talked about most. Yale was the centerpiece of our tour alma mater of presidents, home of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize. The school promised us $300 plus gas money. At least, thats what Kelly said. Her friend had organized the reading, and had neglected to give us a contract.
We were scheduled to perform at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon. It was the kick-off for their GLBT pride week. All week we name-dropped; we told everyone we knew that we were reading at Yale. The name conferred instant legitimacy on our dubious enterprise. Even our parents were impressed.
When we arrived at Yale, we followed the directions to the womens center. It turned out to be a concrete bunker in the basement of a large dormitory. No posters outside advertised our reading. No one was there to greet us when we finally arrived.
The worn sofas and chairs arranged in a circle looked like they had been brought there by second-wave feminists whod saved them from the dump. We disappeared into the chairs, even Michelle in her red leather miniskirt and fishnets and frilly pink jacket. There was no audience.
Where is everyone? Kelly asked her friend E. when she rushed in to meet us. E. is a sophomore there and the head of the Yale Poetry Slam.
Its just that theres so little support for poetry here, said our hapless host.
The calculus of achieving turnout at these events is complicated, but the elementary stuff is obvious. A good organizer plans in advance, sends a contract, publicizes the event. Im terrible at math, but it doesnt take a degree from Yale to figure out that too much had been left to chance.
It was beginning to look as if we might as well skip the reading, collect our $300 and head home. But then an actual student walked in, accompanied by the pride week keynote speaker.
There was nothing else to do but begin. Kelly read first. She had dressed up for this reading, in a black leather corset above her olive-green cargo pants. Looking at her, I felt the need to hold my breath for fear that one or both of her constricted boobs would pop out at any moment. Why dont we go around and each of us will read one thing? she suggested.
The room was too intimate for her vagina poem, so she read something about Girl Scout camp instead. Emboldened by the low turnout, I read an unfinished poem from my journal about going through airport security. Charis, obviously tense, offered a poem about keeping her ex-lovers clothing. Midway through, two of her friends walked in. Theyd driven from Quechee to see us. Charis paused and resumed, but by now it was difficult to pay attention; Keegan was growing restless, babbling about his drawing and marching around the circle.
The keynote speaker, a transgender woman named Pauline Parks, listened attentively as she retrieved the stuffed pterodactyl Keegan punched across the room. It was only a matter of time before he hit someone, I thought.
When it was Michelles turn, she read a prose piece about how her own mother struggled when Michelle was a baby. Keegan perked up, walked over to her and stage-whispered, Mom, is the baby me? Michelle interrupted her reading to answer him. No, sweetie, that was Mommy. When she came to a part about Keegan, Michelle pulled him to her and stroked his head to calm him, as she read about marching on Washington to preserve the choice she didnt want to make.
This line always gets me, especially when the kid is right there, center stage, and everyone has just been caught thinking, why cant he just shut up and sit down and be good? It woke me up, and I saw how strangely subversive it was, bringing Keegan to a reading at the Yale Womens Center. Women have kids, after all, and kids are disruptive. He made us all uncomfortable, but thats what kids do. And it seemed important to remind clean-cut Yale that single-motherhood is a messy, difficult enterprise. I found a new pleasure in the thought that this was turning out to be a valuable educational experience after all.
Kerry was next, and she read about working at a gas station in Waterbury, describing the mental patients who buy cigarettes and beer from her. She had a whole passage about her customers reactions to the silver spinning Winston display.
Shes so Bukowski, I thought. I love that. And despite the low turnout, despite the pathetic little room and the hundreds of miles wed driven, and the mockery my expectations had made of me, I started enjoying myself. I remembered that it doesnt matter where were reading or how many people are in the room. Its about bringing our realities to places that deny or erase them.
The energy of those moments sustained us. Our audience actually wanted to hear more. Somehow we managed to read for almost an hour and a half.
Afterwards, everyone lingered. We exchanged e-mail addresses. We gave out copies of our books for free, grateful to the five people who listened. It wasnt at all what wed expected, but somehow it made sense.
When it was time to ask for the check, I wasnt even annoyed that there wasnt one. Actually, we dont have the money to pay you right now, but were having a fundraiser on Friday, E. informed me. We should be able to send you a check after that. Uh-huh.
The last two shows on our tour were no less problematic: Only a few people showed up; I sold only one book to Kerrys mom; we got rained on while reading outside; we were stared at in small-town gas stations; a check got lost in the mail, etc.
But beginnings are like that, right? If I start now, Ill have plenty of time to work on our line-up for October.