I don’t usually share these memories, but 6 years ago today I read at my first poetry reading. It was the beginning of my 3rd year in Philadelphia. I had just moved to VWVOFFKA, a house gallery my friends had started a few months before. My friend Jenna Wilchinsky hosted VWVOFFKA’s first ever Word Exchange, with some featured poets from Temple University. I think both Masha Badinter and Jenna had collaborated on the name for this event which would eventually become a series at the house, and I would eventually carry into describing any reading I would host around town (recently I noticed Little Berlin, another gallery I put a few years into, started using the same phrase to describe a monthly reading series they’ve been hosting in the Annex Space. Ha! It’s a good phrase!).
I was 23. The writing I was putting to paper was part of a novel called The Voice of Wye Gnough, a story about a lonely, angsty twenty-something named Michael Cavendish and this sage-like, acid-wine drinking, bum savant that he keeps seeing at Le Bar named Wye Gnough. The story wasn’t very good and mostly about a recent short-lived relationship, I was still dealing with the fall out from. I was young (or well, I was younger).
The other poets were well-versed, maybe a little bit rehearsed and generally inside the same crit class together, so all pretty aware of each other’s writing and all the inside jokes / meta language they were using. I don’t remember what they read, but I remember they smoked cigarettes while they read and as they finished each poem, they threw the page to the ground.
I had never read my work out loud before and I didn’t really know what I was doing. WHY-NO, a performance art act I did that involved drinking wine and banging on the emptying jugs of it and singing angst-ridden songs of desolation, was still fresh in my mind so I brought my omnichord. I strummed chords to keep the words rolling off my tongue. This is kind of funny looking back at because one idea I had for this last tour of reading haikus was to bring a casio keyboard along (the same one I used during WHY-NO days) and play tunes between each haiku. Obviously WHY-NO still has a hold on my imagination.
This was pre-erotica (I didn’t start writing that till the following year after traveling to Paris, Madrid, and Barcelona while reading Delta of Venus by Anais Nin). It was pre-travel fiction (I had traveled some, but not found my voice in the road just yet). I think people received my short stories alright. I think I might’ve been the only one who read short stories. But the most interesting thing was that I heard my own voice for the very first time.
I have written since I was 16 or 17, with actively thinking myself a writer, and even longer without. But this was the first time I heard the words outside my own head. I heard how the sentences didn’t flow exactly the way I predicted them too. I listened to how some droned on as huge mouthfuls where I would run out of breath. And others didn’t get the reaction I desired. A laugh. Or a sigh of awe.
I think I had what I thought was a poetry voice to make things sound more intricate. Really it was to cover up my nervousness. I think it involved several gin n’ tonics. It was the beginning of a few year period where I slurred my words and thought there was magic in how garbled they rolled.
This was the reading where I met Willow Zef (then Jozef Maguire). He had passed by our store front window and seen what he correctly thought was a poetry reading, though I probably corrected him at some point and said, “Nah, man. It’s a word exchange.” Disagreement has always been an interesting part of our friendship. It’s helped me explore new parts of myself I didn’t know were there to have this other contrasting perspective in one of my close friends. 6 years ago, he stepped up and read and he taught me the value of beat and recitation, through these almost hip hop inspired, magically real verses he would rattle off his chest without any verse in front of him.
A month or two later, I would meet Augustus Depenbrock at one of these word exchanges, a week or so before the first ever Plato’s Porno Cave (a surreal gala that we eventually collaborated on for several years) held in his warehouse loft space, and Gus would perform the most interesting, off the cuff recitation of a Bukowski poem about a radio thrown through a window, I’ve ever heard. From him I would learn repetition and the value of controlling the tone of voice.
I would meet other folks like Scott Bickmore and Cipro that year at further Word Exchanges. And folks like Keri Hansen, in who I would find a friend to share inspiration with. She’d share with me writers that I should read, and in that way constantly push my expression. She’d also be the final voice to complete the group that would write a literary blog, Top 5 Fingers, which involved me, Gus, Zef, and a friend from college, Alana Franasiak. That year I would even host the writer of the La La Theory and White Elephants zines, who I’d admired for a long time, Katie Haegale. And in somewhat a different direction, that would be the year I would lose the first person to ever call me “brother”, Mike Hall. His death still carrying it’s weight for me every November, leaving me lost and longing, but also giving me a better sense of the value of life and how fragile it can sometimes be.
I read The Voice of Wye Gnough several more times over the year. Each time I’d read, I’d find new things I liked and many more I disliked. I started to write new chapters and rewrite old ones with the sound of my voice in mind. Back then I mostly wrote on a typewriter I bought for 10 dollars on the side of the road in North Philly. Each time I read, I paid more attention to the sound of the words. But The Voice of Wye Gnough wasn’t quite right yet. Some of it was unsalvageable to this new style I was finding. This new voice that was increasingly my own.
Eventually, I would scrap the novel because of its jumbled sentences and lack of true development. One of the last times I would read from it, Gus would actually light some of the pages on fire. It was New Years. A celebration in the second house for VWVOFFKA to pop up in, two blocks north on the road. The same building where Little Baby’s Ice Cream now resides. In the basement, was the first home of the Dream Oven. I watched and admired the flames, but then I realized I had no idea which pages Gus was reading from and whether they were any good or not.
I yelled out, “Gus! That’s typewritten. I don’t have any copies!”
The pages turned to smoke and ash and went out on the floor and I had to accept they were gone. Part of me accepted it was better that way. The remaining pages I put in a box somewhere and taped shut, maybe a month or two later.
If I had never read poetry that year, I would’ve never found my voice. Even more importantly, I would have never found my writing community.
Now six years later, I’ve just completed my second poetry tour across the country. I’ve found and been reinvigorated in the magic that spoken words hold. They can be healing. They inspire others. They create a sense of connection that maybe some other forms of expression can’t quite match. There’s a vulnerability in them. There’s definitely a catharsis.
It’s interesting to perceive how short a time six years are, relatively, between then and now. It’s interesting to examine how much growth, I’ve had personally and where I’m at as a writer today. And even more so to see all the growth in my peers. To see all of the many good vibes we’ve brought ourselves through. It’s amazing to think of all the things we’ve created together.
The creative life is a beautiful one. The Voice of Wye Gnough was an attempt at telling a story of it. Of our generation. Even back then I was calling us all Dream Punks. But it came up short. It failed miserably.
One day, hopefully soon, I’ll finish that first novel, though, and tell the story of the incredible scene I’ve been brought up in.