Friday, April 28, 2006

Cement Oasis

I went to prison this week, for the first time. Sadly, like many folks who've never been inside a correctional facility before, my expectations had been shaped by MSNBC's Lock-Up, HBO's Oz, the films ConAir and Shawshank and, maybe, a dab of The Andy Griffith Show.

I know. How surburban of me.

Suffice it to say, my assumptions were ... um ... wrong. True, the innmates could've been actually shanking and hustling and tossing one another right before I showed up, but they were writers and poetry fans with me.

By the end of the night, I was signing programs like a rock star and accepting generous compliments and thank-yous for the day we'd spent together.

"You're a blessing ... really."

Me? Sheesh. "Thank you" isn't quite adequate, d'ya think? No, I didn't think so either. Especially when they are the ones who made the day important, which made it spectacular. For my part, I turned a workshop into a sustainable series ... something that the inmates will nuture and grow into something ... more. We started with a workshop on how to add volume, power and clarity to their writing; executed their first ever poetry slam (with 20 poets!); and, that night, launched the first open mic poetry series in a Wisconsin correctional facility.

Still, real life is just that. By 8pm, 100 grown men dressed in industrial green were waiting for their turn to get ice cream. Ice cream! Vanilla sugar cones, at that. Even from their places in line, these men --black, white, young, old-- were whistling and snapping at the poetry they heard. One of the judges flashed his scores from his spot in line. I'm watching the cinema, grinning my classic I'm-so-proud-of-y'all-mother-duck grin. Inside, wondering how they got here. How they each went from buying a cone or dish whenever they damn well pleased to ... this. What were the string of circumstances and decisions to land these guys here? Especially the ones with art and poetry thumping in their blood?

Once upon a time, they were irreverent teenagers, hormone thrashed middle-schoolers and tumbling, babbling, Elmer's glue eating toddlers. Just like the rest of us. In fact, one of the inmates did a poem called FlashBack where he referenced common demoninator kid stuff: Boston Baked Beans, Monkey See/Monkey Do, skipping pennies, pulling ponytails, flipping noonies, roller skates, the dozens, Now&Laters, the whole caboodle. Everyone was nodding and smiling ... remembering.

But we never know, do we? The precise turns and twists that insert our lives into brain-numbing jobs, between toxic relationships, under bankruptcy, atop stripper poles, wrapped in poetry circles, and inside prison.

In any event, we had a great time. The workshop was fun, their first slam was, actually, pretty impressive and the show that night was simply amazing. Partly because of the poetry, partly because of the band (yep, they have a band), partly the slam, partly a new pair of breasts to focus on (hey, I accept they weren't all/always hanging onto my words) but, mostly, because they've been granted an opportunity to refresh. For example, one of the inmates appointed himself as my assistant at the end of the workshop. By the time the evening show rolled around, he'd secured a calculator and a clipboard to help me keep score. By the end of the show, his score announcements had become charmingly comical commentaries ("What score do we have for Mr. Smith" "Mr. Smith has edged ahead with a noble and consistent score of 25.7!")

For me, this was one of the most fulfilling excursions I've had in a long time. Yes, I was appreciated. Yes, they were a great audience. Yes, they seemed to absorb the teaching points. Yes, they had fun. But all that dims in comparison to their future-forward smiles. Small, I know, in the scheme of decades-long sentences and lost loved ones and, well, remorse -- but they had something new to look forward to. For some, they'll look forward to a new platform for letting their words dance and fly. Some, need a sanctioned venue to entertain or be the center of attention. Some, need to be fed these new-fangled scriptures we call poetry. Some, just want an escape into a storefront normalcy, immerse themselves in something un-institutional.

In all cases, I'm honored (I know, Kendall, I know) to be a part of the architecture, the lead designer, in fact. This day was less about poetry and all about punching another airhole in the presswood boxes they've built for themselves. Everyone, everyone deserves a chance to breathe.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Reality numb

Words stand still
broad bands
of expectation

Bodies of young boys
beneath murky lagoon
bound by marsh weeds
pulled down to sweeten
its stagnant streams

frozen in my mouth
jagged edges digging
into fury
tearing open that simple shell
exposing apathy's patient dead seed

Unable to bear fruit
from freedom ringing verdicts
handed to police academy misfits
one family
our community
all damned to prune these
plantation field perversions
grief proving its forever harvest

shrink away
too small
and limp
to even wobble
beneath the weight of this
unbrave world
into corners
what good can they do

Friday, March 24, 2006

Nothing promised

When I'm not scribbling lines of poetry on Q'doba receipts or dialogue quips on my daughter's homework (hey ... Yale will not be asking for copies of her worksheet on words that start with "th"), I'm pretending to be a marketing consultant.

Actually, I'm pretty good at what I do (I'm allowed to say that, right?) I only say "pretending" because I'm one of those people who always thinks they could and should be better, especially since I started working independently 6 yrs ago. I used to recoil from the [whisper] overachiever label ... but I used to think I'd be a Size 10 again, too. Right. Get over it.

Anyhoo, I was hired to plan a 99th birthday gala for the first African-American woman to become a licensed mortician in the State of Wisconsin (I know). But, this sista was smooth, you hear me?! She's still vibrant and eloquent and graceful and warm and funny, simply amazing. I put together a photo montage for the reception and dinner, and it was uncanny fingering her life. Pictures of her as a child, her grandparents, friends posed in front of Studebakers, husbands wearing wingtips, children sporting curls, flips, hi-top fades. Black-and-white, faded colormatics, full color newspaper images. She has admirably lived a rich and honest life.

Earlier this week, one of the gala guests tells me that someone who did not attend said, "I just didn't understand why they didn't wait until her 100th birthday. I'll be sure to come next year."

Are you serious?

99 years of living is a blessing all by itself. So is four months. So why do we take the obviously-unpromised things for granted?

Well, before I get too high on my horse: I'm guilty, too. Two young boys have been missing in our community for almost a week now. Volunteers combing the park grounds. Police netting the rivers. Mothers making tear-steeped pleas on the news. The whole tragic nine yards. They were 10 & 12, I think, and good kids -- great in school, active with youth groups, well-liked, from loving families, (for "some reason," that has mattered). These two friends were last seen playing at a basketball court near their home.

Last seen?

I constantly have to remind myself that evil people are out there ... just walking around. In the grocery store, at the movies, in parking lots, near basketball courts, and somewhere on my block. My husband lectures and scolds me all the time about dangers that "could" happen. In my mind, I've always tempered his warnings with background music provided by Donny & Marie, with the new lyrics "He's a little bit paranoid ..."

Well, once again, he's right. "Could" happens everyday. A pretty juvenile statement to make at 36, I know. But, sadly, it's an epiphany I'll arrive at over and again throughout my life. I

I can only pray that it won't ever come behind a newswire story.

Please pray for the safe return of these babies.

Quadrevion Henning and Purvis Virginia-Parker and were last seen on March 19, 2006 at approximately 3:30 p.m. playing basketball. They have not been seen since. Purvis was last seen wearing a white t-shirt and gray jogging suit. He may go by the last name Virginia. Quadrevion was last seen wearing a white jacket with blue stripes on the sleeves, black oversize tshirt over a white tshirt, and black jeans. He was also wearing red, white, and blue shoes. If you have any information regarding these children call the Milwaukee Police at 414-935-7401

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Tribute Poem

I know I promised a moment-by-moment of Mahagony & Jive's show, but anything above "outstanding" is truly saying too much. The venue was a chic, and still cozy. The crowd was lively, and still fertile. The hosts were skilled, and still raw (what?! with the peanut butter & jelly sandwiches?!?!). The show was well done, well attended and much-appreciated.

The lineup included myself, Christa Bell (Seattle), Bassey Ipke (NYC) & Queen Sheba (Atlanta). I carry a great deal of respect for all three of these performers; so it was an honor to share the mic with them:

One of Those Tribute Poems
This is my first
I’ve heard plenty of poetry
with well-crafted lines
to stutter my breathing
and collide my palms
into spasmatic applause
but I’ve always found
tribute poems to be crude
flat & simple

seductuctive, even
but I vowed to never write one

And then
her signature bit me
with a whip
dipped in some poison
I don’t dare say her name
In case
Some lunatic decides to pitch a tent

in her mama’s yard
And y’all

start thinking it's
gonna be easy to make me leave

Lyrics spun
above rarefied air
a craft
Supervised by witches

and angels high on hallelujah
Witnessing her inisight
spring to life
behind microphones
brakes the world at her heels
all else
are whispers of lives held

it will be there

that life
but I’ve got to hear this again
and again

and again

After the 4th time
I’m embarrassed
I’ve been sprung by a poet
First time for everything
And I want her
I want to hold words on my tongue
Like her
Openly love the high notes of my own scripture
Like her
Love my verbal imperfections
like fleeing open my robe before bedding a lover
with breasts less
Like ripe fruit
But engorged with sweetness
Just the same
I want my pages to be decidedly alive
Like hers
Give myself permission to
Stamp my stories onto daylight
Balance my purpose
On slender, chipped edges

of No. 2 and clotted inkwells

I am alive
With my language
And celebrate it by accident
And wisely
So I must allow myself
To applaud a phenomenon
Whenever it cyclones nearby
Let fly into the storm clouds
broken houses
Beachfronts, stadiums
And egos
Giving respect
To inspiration
Elemental in its beauty
Her words were honest
seductive, even
and I could tell
that she kept her
words tied around her waist
And tucked between her breathing
Leaning on a sheer netting of glorious language
Like me.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Fan in Me

I admit it. I'm giddy. Giddy like a school girl putting on her first formal gown ("school girl?" "gown?" yes, I'm getting old).

Anyhoo ...

I'm part of a lineup for a show that Mahagony Browne and Jive Poetic have put together in NYC called Women Take Back the Mic: me, Queen Sheba, Bassey Ipkey and Christa Bell. When I agreed to do the show, I had no idea that I would be in such illustrious company! Thick? Maybe. But I truly admire the pen skills of these women. In fact, I'm honored (my husband teases that I'm "honored" about everything ... but I can't help it, I am!) to be on the bill.

Anyhoo ... I wanted to log in my "before" excitement. I'll key in an "after" play-by-play tomorrow while I'm sitting in JFK at the butt-crack of dawn waiting for my flight home.

Monday, March 06, 2006

A New Stage

Okay, so I'm putting on my maid costume, right? My oldest daughter earned a small part in a community theater production of the classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and --somehow -- found myself hoodwinked into being a servant named Sookey.

Sookey, for the love of Snoopy.

But the costume (complete with full apron and a little kerchief hat) was the easiest to get used to. The tough part was -sheesh! the amount of time this effort has gobbled from my life.

Selfish, yes. But I'm entitled to be human, right?

The first week, I had to send an email to the director and make a plea for a relaxed schedule.

"She's five ... has only two lines in the 150-minute production ... and ... she's five. Kindergarten is going to be oh, so rough after getting into bed after 9 and 10 pm 3-4 nights a week. Not to mention the four year old I have to drag along, too ..."

I stamped the experience as the Worst Great Idea I'd had in a long time. Damn rec center activities overloading, subscription to Nick Jr having, exposure to the arts preaching, obscure vegetable cooking, teachable moment seeking, paranoid of finding my kids on the Daughter of Oprah Show in 15 years, overachieving mother.

That would be me.

But, as it turns out, it was a great idea. Both of the girls look forward to playing with the new extended family and I've even caught a bit of an acting bug.

Not to worry. I won't be added this to my too-long list of things to do until I can get a pass to show up on game day!


Friday, February 10, 2006

Leftover Zodiac

I coined a new t-shirt slogan while at lunch with my girlfriend Gerry yesterday (you know us poet-types never speak in plain English!):

Every star we discover is not part of a constellation.

Okay, maybe more of an inscription inside a Get Well card than a t-shirt franchise, but you get my drift.

Gerry and I were talking --again-- about balance in our respective lives. I love getting together with Gerry b/c our six lunch dates a year (in a good year) have converted themselves into years worth of hugs, tears, confidences and teachable moments. The other reason I love talking w/Gerry is that she thinks like me in a lot of ways, confirming that I'm not entirely crazy. (The alternative, of course, is that we're equally insane).

We talked about serendipity and how easy it is to be misguided by its allure ... "I wasn't even going to that Blockbuster at first, but I needed to get a copy made from the place next door and ..." or "Can you believe that on the one day that I finally decide to take those peppers to Mother Lewis' house, I run in to ..." We love it when those stories end in true love, grand fortune or even just a great parking space. Hell, I do.

Hi, my name is Dasha and I'm a hopeless romantic ...

Who wouldn't want to have their whims and hopes confirmed by moons and stars and horoscopes and surprise phone calls and cancelled appointments and shiny quarters waiting to be found on the the ground. So when I was ready to launch a new artistic venture last year (a project I now know would have forced me to take a very long walk along a very short pier) I admit that my operating philosophy was Way of the Aligning Star. Now --hundreds of hours, a couple of grand and, sadly, one friend later-- I can clearly see that I had connected the wrong dots against the night sky.

See, until that project fizzled, the thought of not pursuing every plausible, great idea had never occurred to me. Even now --after a fairly successful year in too-much-itis recovery--I still have to talk myself out of committing to projects and meetings and engagements and whatnot simply b/c I'm capable or available or invited. So you can imagine my fervor whenever I perceive "the stars to be aligned," right?

Romantic notion or intuitive guidance?

Nonetheless, I advised Gerry against a thinly-veiled opportunity and, as I heard the new slogan for 2006 fall from my lips, I realized that we were a hopeless pair. Every star is not part of a constellation so we should agree to admire those single stars for what they are.

Every star is not part of a constellation.

This is going to be harder than the words. In fact, right now I'm pursuing a life-alterning project based on the close timing of a few emails, coffee chats and cell phone calls. That's right: pursuing, not considering.

It's the Big Dipper, this time, I know it!

Hey, we hopeless romantics can only commit to being careful; we could never make promises against chasing dreams.

So Gerry and I hugged and silently agreed to ignore our own sage advice this one last time. True, some stars are averse to forming patterns in the sky but it's a lot more fun to try and manipulate the splatter into recognizable patterns, don't you think?

So cancel the order for those t-shirts. I have some stars to go and wish upon.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Vaudeville Frog

I am brilliantly efficient. I capture precision strategies. My brand of creativity is unrivaled.

And then I leave the waiting room, the lobby or get out of my car.

See, when I'm forced to sit still, my thoughts unfold into straight lines and sharp edges. With amazing clarity, I come up with opportunities for launching new projects, defining improvements on existing endeavors, consider new partnerships to forge, and recall distant relationships to bolster.

But as soon as I start moving, thangz get fuzzy. Not the ideas, so much; that faucet drips constantly. But the how of it all can get sickeningly coy: where should my first calls go? what kind of advance time do I need? what relationships do I already have in place? who could help pay for this? is this a realistic concept, anyway ...

Once the doubts begin needling into certainty, my thoughts unfold into languid, waving ribbons instead of crisp, hard edges. Makes me think of that Warner Brothers cartoon where the guy discovers a frog singing show tunes ... until they're not alone. Then, "ribbit." No more Broadway, no more high kicks, no more top hat. No more, until they're alone.

Just like me and my bright ideas.

But I'm used to this betrayal. In fact, after decades of working like two or three people, I know that most of the problem comes from crowding my poor brain with too many layers of too many tasks. I've only recently (like, four weeks ago) recognized that I'm reaching my own critical mass and need to engage other folks and resources to keep the machines churning. The rest of the universe saw it a few years ago ... but it's been hard to let go of things without feeling like I'm letting go of the standards and expectations I've set for myself, too.

Poppycock, you say.

Ribbit, I say.

And like the cartoon's stubble-faced man who was determined to get that damn frog to sing in public, I'm fatefully committed to expecting more than the most out of myself. Not perfection --gave up on that when I got a C in Handwriting in the third grade. I just want to be able to realize my every fancy and idea.


It's not like believing in singing frogs or anything ...

Thursday, January 26, 2006

A Preacher, Prostitute and Duck go into a Bar ...

So I'm on my way to do poetry in Iowa ...

Which lead-in sounds like a joke?

Well, the Iowa thing could've gone either way, especially when my gas needle hugged waaaayyyy to close to E as a result of the exits with gas stations being waaaaayyyy too far apart. Me digging out my teensy gas can, leaving my car abandoned on the rural road (I exited, at one point, thinking there had to be a gas station fairly close), walking miles in the dark, my right pinky toe humbling me to vow a forever allegiance to rubber sole wedge flats, and peeing on myself at the mere thought of getting snatched up by some snaggle toothed creep driving a Dodge charger, Mack truck or state patrol car.

No ... no punch line there ...

Instead, I put my car back on the highway and thanked God --in advance-- for letting the next exit be one with a gas station.

If it was humor I wanted, though, the Iowa City Slam was hilarious! There was a poem about belly lint ... a poem with steps for baking blood pudding ... a poem that came with a broom accessory ... poems with amazing metaphors and imagery "earning" scores of 3s, 4s and 6s ... and a spontaneous public service announcement against nerve-numbing sex lubricants.

... then the Duck says to the Prostitute ...

Best of all, I've adopted (and hopefully been adopted by) a few Iowa poets. There were three Milwaukeeans in the audience! Chillin' drove an hour from Waterloo to show love (We actually adopted each other a few years ago and it was great to see her looking/feeling so good)! I stayed up with Joe-squared (Slammaster Joe Mirabella and his partner Joe) until the wee hours talking about life, laughing at change, shuffling through Tarot cards and comparing notes on how we plan to help Ikea take over the world.

And did I mention that most of the IowaCity Slam audience were already organ donors? Go 'head Iowa DMV!

So, sorry, no corny Iowa jokes (oooh! corn. that one was an accident!). Just another wonderful experience on the road trying to saving the universe through poetry.

Okay. Maybe there was joke in here somewhere.

[this post makes up for the one I missed last week]

Friday, January 13, 2006

Hello, Friday

A new year can be like a new love: this one is going to be special. Better than the ones before. This time, not only are you going to expect more, you're going to be more -- more healthy, more honest, more assertive, more daring, more passionate, more thoughtful, more ... more.

Then, of course, January ends and you realize that this new year is weighted with familiar strains and tendencies as the ones you've barely survived before. You realize --again-- that upgrading your entire mindset or your life is much more than a notion.

Still, we set ourselves up for possible deflation every year. Even the folks who proclaim that they never make new year resolutions (and you posers know who you are!), even they have made a silent promise or two to themselves for a better world. Announced or not, broken promises are a drag. Especially when you can only suck teeth at yourself.

Knowing all of this, I still love January. It's a guaranteed block of 30 days where I can walk around feeling like a dream ready-to-be-realized and see my life and everything in it as endless opportunities for ... more.

Hell, I'll deal with the other 11 months as they come.

Like, right now, I'm attacking my task lists rather than re-writing them and delegating instead of over-doing and exercising at least three days a week and drinking my four glasses of water every day and not yelling at my kids every time I'm not in the mood for them to be kid-like and making myself more available and active as a friend and peeling back one more layer of myself for my husband and sealing off access to people much less worthy and caring less about protecting everyone else's feelings and calling spades for what they are and treating myself to special things and setting aside more be-still moments and giving myself permission to think like a warrior queen ...

Right now, anyway. If I'm down to half of this list by March, I'll still consider the new year / new love as "more." We gotta make new promises and set new goals to move a few squares closer to CandyLand. If we content ourselves to stay on our same purple squares simply for fear of losing a turn, we've cheated ourselves and lost the game. Yes, the game which truly is all about being on the board and playing with integrity and some conviction ... "winning" and "losing" are just the byproduct terms we all agreed to use.

So, this is my fraternal nod to everyone who has publicly or privately made a promise for 2006: celebrate yourself. You've spoken a potential new truth into your own reality. For 1 day or all 365 ... your simple promise to drop a habit or pick up a hobby confirms that you are living your life, and not letting life live you.

And if you stumble or detour or just downright quit ... well ... nobody said it was going to be easy. In fact, I invite you to remind me of that fine print when I fall short of posting to this blog every Friday. I may not be able to fully adopt the habit right now, but I've promised myself to give it a shot ...

... at least for another 18 days.