Fierce. Tender. Raucous. Funny. Transformative.
These were a few of the words running through my mind after I left a jam-packed April 10 reading hosted by BUST Magazine and the Loft Literary Center at Open Book in Minneapolis. The event, part of the national AWP conference that landed in Minneapolis April 8-11, was hosted by novelist and essayist Roxane Gay and poet/essayist Amber Tamblyn. The vibrant, edgy showcase of feminist poetry, stories, and social commentary attracted an overflow crowd of about 425 attendees, filling Open Book’s main auditorium and spilling into three overflow rooms with live video feeds.
I arrived at the reading after attending two days of panels at the AWP conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center. After hearing scores of writers introduced with staid lists of their literary accomplishments, it was pretty refreshing to hear host Tamblyn introduce writer Roxane Gay as “the f–king boss” and distinguished, award-winning poet Patricia Smith as “the source of many sudden pregnancies at AWP due to her blinding purple panties–I mean, parties” (Smith had hosted a dance party tribute to Prince earlier in the week).
Tamblyn performed, and I do mean performed, not just read, work from her third book of poetry, Dark Sparkler, a collection of poems exploring the lives and deaths of child actresses–a subject painfully close to Tamblyn’s heart, since she comes from a show-business family and has acted in TV and films from a young age. One of the poems Tamblyn performed focused in harrowing detail on the 2009 death of actress Britanny Murphy.
Before reading the poem, Tamblyn shared that she had submitted it in 2009 to PANK, a literary journal edited by event co-host Roxane Gay. Tamblyn noted that Gay’s acceptance of the poem encouraged her to continue writing about child actresses, a process that took Tamblyn about six years.
Another Tamblyn poem, “Jane Doe,” was infused with word-play that sometimes reminded me of 1950s jazz-inspired poetry wed to stand-up comedy attitude. One passage could have served as a manifesto for the whole evening:
Why don’t you feel more like a riot
And less like the cops?
I want to look you in the shards
Go down on your cliche
Until your taboo kabooms
Korean-American poet Franny Choi performed her poem “To the Man Who Shouted ‘I Like Pork Fried Rice’ At Me on the Street,” a furious, impassioned response to racism, sexism, catcalling, and violence against women. At the end of her set, she brought down the house with her experimental poem “Pussy Monster,” a piece she composed by arranging the lyrics from the Lil Wayne song “Pussy Monster” beginning with the least-used words on up to the most-used words. Repeating the words as many times as they appeared in the song and juxtaposing words in telling ways, Choi revealed the obsessive patterns within the song–the repeated word “She. She. She,” for instance, bled into the words “Eat. Eat. Eat. Feed. Feed. Feed,” and the word “Girl” morphed into “Monster. Monster. Monster. Monster” and “Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.” The propulsive, percussive accumulation of words culminated with the frenzied repetition of “Pussy”–and left the packed house whooping, clapping, and cheering.
Like Amber Tamblyn before her, Choi gave Roxane Gay a grateful shout-out for publishing her poem in PANK, saying, “Sometimes you think your words are too weird to love, and then someone’s like, ‘Oh, sweetheart.’”
The writer xTx read next, starting with “One,” a profoundly moving piece about a woman’s love for her terminally ill friend. She followed that with “Today I Am A Wife.” My initial impression of the piece was that it was making fun of its narrator, a seemingly “typical” middle-class wife and mother. That wasn’t the case at all. Gradually, xTx excavated the layers of anger, humiliation, and secret rebellion beneath the narrator’s chipper-sounding voice and weary attempts to bury her pain, building to a quietly devastating ending.
Poet, screenwriter, and nonfiction author Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz took the mic next, performing a trio of poems from her book The Year of No Mistakes, inspired by what she called a “scorched earth break-up,” the kind where, as she put it, “you apologize to your vagina, like, ‘That’s it, you will never be touched again!’”
She described what it was like to hold to her vow: “My head and my heart were like, we’re going to take a break here. We’re going to write our book, be productive. And that worked. My head and heart were fist-pumping every day, but my vagina was like”–here she lowered her voice to a lusty whisper–”I have an idea.”
“And that,” she said to hoots of appreciative laughter from the audience, “is what these poems address.”
The first, “Not Doing Something Wrong Isn’t the Same As Doing Something Right” began
In my defense, my forgotten breasts. In my defense, the hair
no one brushed from my face. In my defense, my hips.
Months earlier, I remember thinking that sex was a ship retreating
on the horizon. I could do nothing but shove my feet in sand.
I missed all the things that loneliness taught me: eyes that follow you
crossing a room, hands that find their home on you. To be noticed. Even.
Aptowicz didn’t just read her words–she practically danced them, using movement and gesture to communicate raw desire and ecstatic joy. Her delivery of her poems reminded me of what it feels like to talk with an especially funny, smart, frank friend when she’s on a roll.
Roxane Gay took the stage to thunderous applause. In the last year, Gay has received tremendous critical praise–and achieved bestseller status–with her essay collection Bad Feminist and her novel An Untamed State, establishing herself as a major talent on the American literary scene. Yet Gay deftly deflected the mantle of Great Literary Figure by taking an unpretentious, self-deprecating tone right away, reading, “Notes on My UPS Man,” a prose ode to her unrequited obsession with her UPS delivery guy.
“I love him,” she joked. “And I hope that he loves me. But he really doesn’t. We have a very tense relationship.”
Gay then skillfully shifted emotional gears to read “Do You Have a Place for Me?” about two women who meet in a small town where they can “hide in plain sight.” On the blog JMWW, Gay described the story this way: “I wanted to explore a connection between two women who are close friends and like most people, have complex desires. They have separate, happy lives, they’re in serious relationships. And yet, they are drawn to each other.”
The story begins, “We will meet even though we shouldn’t. You steal away from yours and I will steal away from mine, not forever, not even for long and not for long enough.”
Interestingly, one of the inspirations for the story was a poem by xTx, also titled “Do You Have a Place for Me”–another example at this reading of women writers sparking each other’s work.
Poet and essayist Patricia Smith ended the night with two very different poems, one subversively playful, the other righteously furious and shot through with grief. Smith, a four-time National Poetry Slam champion as well as a 2008 National Book Award finalist, brought her formidable gifts as both a writer and a performer to her time on the stage.
Smith’s first poem was “Doin’ the Louvre,” about a trip to the Louvre with her friend Patricia Zamora.
“So you know how when Americans go somewhere, they try to act like they know everything?” Smith asked the Loft crowd. Well, she explained, her poem wasn’t about that kind of American. It was about two women turning one of the world’s most hallowed cultural institutions into their personal playground–“running up and down the halls, reaching through the barriers to touch the paintings, taking pictures of stuff that’s supposed to crumble when you take pictures of it,” as Smith put it.
The guards, Smith joked, “had to go to the walkie-talkies and say, ‘There’s a Negro and a Puerto Rican and we have to find them.”
“This,” Smith said of her poem, “is about the joy of discovery, that it’s OK not to know everything.”
Smith ended her performance with “The Five Stages of Drowning,” an unflinching elegy for two baby girls drowned by their fathers only a few months apart in 2011. In an interview with Jon Sands published online in Union State Magazine, Smith explained the origin of the poem, part of a larger project, When Black Men Drown Their Daughters.
“How did it come to me?” Smith reflected. “A news story I couldn’t shake, and then another news story just like the first one. Two men. Two babies. Two bridges. Both in Jersey (!). You know how something clings to you, no matter how hard you try to rid yourself of the responsibility of the story? That’s what happened. I knew I’d be opening up a huge can of emotional worms, that I’d probably be accused of wagging a finger at black men. . .but that doesn’t change the fact that two black men drowned their babies. . . I’m already scared by what’s rising to the surface. But the surface is where the writing’s waiting.”
As I walked out of Open Book after the reading and hit the twilit sidewalk along Washington Avenue, I overheard a young man and woman talking about the reading. The woman said, “I’d never been to a reading before, and I was sort of like, what could be interesting about hearing somebody read their poems when I could just read them for myself? But it was so much better than that.”
The man agreed. “I know, and now I want to check out all their work.”
I left feeling exactly the same urge to read more of each woman’s words. I also felt inspired. To create. To listen. To take risks. To inhabit my own skin with a little less fear and a lot more joy.
Selected, By-No-Means-Exhaustive Reading List:
Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz (Gotham Books, 2014)
The Year of No Mistakes by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz (Write Bloody, 2013)
Floating, Brilliant, Gone by Franny Choi (Write Bloody, 2014)
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (Grove Press, 2014)
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (Harper Perennial, 2014)
Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah by Patricia Smith (Coffee House, 2012 )
Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith (Coffee House, 2008)
Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn (Harper Perennial, 2015)
Bang Ditto by Amber Tamblyn (Manic D Press, 2009)
Today I Am A Book by xTx (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015)
Normally Special by xTx (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2011)