Friday, April 27, 2012

An Attempted Review of Two Nights of Live Alt-Lit Poetry Readings, Starring Steve Roggenbuck (With A Number of Asides)

I've been following Steve Roggenbuck, and the Pop Serial crew at large, for a couple years at this point, I believe. Not ever incredibly closely, admittedly; I drop in to watch a ustream here and there, check out one of their internet literary journals every couple months or so, and speak with a few of them on twitter and facebook very occasionally. Still, I enjoy much of Steve's poetry, so when I heard that he was coming to the Bay Area I was excited to get to see him read live.

What follows is basically an attempt to review those two nights. It includes way too much extraneous personal information, however, to honestly be called a review. The asterisk lines roughly delineate between the exclusively personal and the review-sections. Good luck.


The first of the two readings happened on Sunday, April 22nd, in Oakland. It was basically a small house party in an apartment, lived in by the night's emcee, Matt, who did a very good job, and a person who I'd met before once or twice and had not at all expected to be there, Brian Ang. Brian runs the journal Armed Cell and has written for the Lana Turner Journal, and I have really enjoyed what I've read by him. I was introduced to him at, I believe, the West Coast Port Shutdown by one @leducviolet. Having seen from the event page that a member of the 'Lectric Collective was scheduled to read, this additional synchronicity struck me, at the time, as totally remarkable.

Now, admittedly, I probably shouldn't have been anywhere near as surprised that Alt Lit people and Occupy people and 'Lectric Collective people knew each other; I found out about the 'Lectric Collective because the very same @leducviolet did a reading at one of their events, and I also know that he knows Steve Roggenbuck. For some reason, though, the idea that they were all less than one degree separated still baffled me, in a pleasant sort of way.


The afternoon before the reading, I watched Grizzly Man for the first time, with my roommate and my girlfriend, at her apartment in San Francisco. I came away from the film a little confused, but with a generally positive feeling. The most interesting, and infuriating, part of the film, I will say (surely unoriginally) was for me Werner Herzog's voiceover. It seemed so obviously unnecessary, and often so needlessly combative, that I spent a lot of time wondering just why it was done. Hearing Herzog praising Treadwell's filmmaking abilities, and then turning around and condemning him as (just short of) a fraud and liar who fabricated his image, made me start leaning toward a sort of psychoanalytic reading of the film, with Treadwell as Herzog's projection, and the film a way for Herzog to berate and wheedle his way to making his Imaginary into the Real.

When what ultimately, I'm fairly sure at this point, became my favorite scene of the movie came on, which could have very firmly supported that take on the film, I switched my take on it entirely. As Treadwall departs on his Fuck Park Services rant, that Herzog decides to air in full but dub over the bits that he deems too personal, I began to see the film more materially, as the dance of two productions; to see it as a simple matter of, say, Treadwell's raw footage and Herzog's directorial manipulation seemed suddenly dishonest. Instead, there were simply these two egomaniacs, each puffing up their chests, pretending a Conflict With Nature that was uniquely their own, and each unable to see in their struggle anything other than themselves.


After the movie ended we drove to Oakland for the reading. I spoke to Steve for a few minutes, mostly about the Midwest, and then the three of us stood awkwardly in the hallway, at first without beers, and then with some. Eventually M. Kitchell showed up, who I was very excited to finally meet, and we talked to him briefly as well, until we eventually walked up to the neighbours apartment, who I believe was named Kirsten, and the reading began.

Jilly Robotz, of the 'Lectric Collective, started things off with poems inspired her work as an SAT tutor, and poems revolving around the production of elaborate fictional contexts to provide explanation for opaque faccebook status updates. Using these specific two things as the materials out of which she wrote poems struck me as neat, in that they are probably two of the most obviously identifiable ways of instrumentalizing language in our society. The SAT draws on languages ability to communicate knowledge in order to transform it into data used to reproduce class divisions; Facebook draws on language's ability to communicate experience in order to transform it into data used to efficiently target consumption of commodities. By fabricating elaborate human contexts, into which the material was usually inserted as a sort of punchline, I thought she was making an interesting headway into reading differently.

Jilly was followed by Alison, a stand-up comedian. As someone who spent an enormous amount of time smoking weed and watching Comedy Central Presents in high school, I have learned a very deep hatred of that particular art form. Alison, however, held her own, and didn't fall into any of the pitfalls that seem to me to be inherent to the form. She played well with the small crowd, did her thing, and turned out to be a pretty perfect transition into Steve's reading.

Steve's energy was impressive, as he improvised jokes around some of his memes. The codeword of the night seemed to be "post-sexual fricking," and variations thereof. He read exclusively from Crunk Juice, picking poems at random (as far as I could tell). He did a good job of matching the energy of his reading to the energy of the crowd; when he flipped to a portion of "somewhere in the bottom of the rain" he only read the particular page he was on, for instance, whereas when he read more punchier poems that the crowd vocally enjoyed he kept their energy going. I think my favorite example of that, and possibly favorite moment of the night, was when, from out of nowhere, Steve just started hopping up and down in place for a couple seconds.

After the reading was over there was a small dance party, in which we didn't really participate. We hung out (again in the hallway) with M. Kitchell and Steve for a minute. Steve signed my housemate's just-bought copy of Crunk Juice, and when he asked that the signature make it seem as if they were old friends, Steve wrote an incredibly funny fake-yearbook signature. We ended up giving M. Kitchell a ride home, went to a restaurant called the Oriental Barbecue Town, dropped off my housemate, and headed back to San Francisco to sleep.


In the morning my girlfriend had to go to a Professional Development thing for her work, so I went to a shitty cafe on Haight Street, and then up to the top of Buena Vista Park to read Greg Bear's Queen of Angels and try to write things. I got none of that done, because a guy started talking to me, and we ended up hanging out for like two hours at the park, and then another hour back at his house. This is mostly notable because I am a tightly packed little ball of Social Anxiety, and so nothing like this has ever really happened to me before. I am very, very bad at meeting people.

When my girlfriend's Professional Development ended I went back to her house to hang out for a few hours. She decided that she was going to skip the second reading, seeing as she needed to get up early for work. So around 6:30 I drank 3 PBRs, freaked out when I checked my email (re: job search stuff), and (now that it was nearly 7:30) headed over to the reading space.


I spoke again to M. Kithell, and Steve, both very briefly, as I drank a tall can of Coors Light and failed miserably to mingle. Janey Smith, who was hosting the event, was a fucking pro - if I had even been remotely capable of interacting with people, he would've made it happen. His talents, however, were wasted on me. I was that exact kind of drunk that I knew I would be but had still hoped to avoid: not drunk enough to feel drunk, or strip away inhibitions, but just drunk enough not to be able to think about anything except what was immediately happening around me. A sort of mental tunnel vision of anxiety. It was pretty impressive, I'm sure.

The actual reading took place in an abandoned apartment (a squat) where I headed up a bit late after a cigarette. The whole room where the reading was to take place was filled with people sitting, so I stood with a few others in an adjacent room, looking through an empty door frame. I was initially at an angle where I couldn't see directly through the door, but there was a mirror positioned along the wall opposite me such that I could watch the performer through it. This was, frighteningly appropriately, I thought, how I ended up seeing M. Kitchell read live for the first time.

The story he read, about laying in bed watching a television on which what (as I recall) may or may not have been a film, muted, was, well, something I found, if not necessarily an identification with, then a certain amount of intimacy towards, immediately. His story was accompanied by a cassette tape playing a staticky mixture of what sounded like talking heads and keyboards and other sounds, and as he began to describe the specific weirdness of shots that were appearing on the television, of the camera's lingering on the child's face, I became, I admit, even more anxious. And when he slam-cut out of the story and began to sing the Lady In The Radiator song, I kind of fucking lost it.

Between the mild drunkenness, the strangeness of the setting, the brutal evocation of Lyncch, and my exhaustion at standing, I feel like this was a fairly reasonable reaction. How I continued to react to the night afterwards, perhaps, was a bit much.

I am going, somewhat apologetically, to basically skip over Zach Houston's reading. Almost entirely because this is basically a fucking diary entry at this point, and his reading was the only moment that whole night whose emotional resonances were completely out of sync with mine. This isn't to say he sucked, of course - if he did, and it fit the narrative, I'd have happily written that. I just was on a completely different fucking page, at that point, I think.

After his reading, there was a short break, in which I smoked a cigarette alone outside and failed miserably to collect my thoughts, then stood against a beam clutching my backpack to my knees looking, I now imagine, like a grade school kid waiting for his absent parent to come pick him up three hours after school has gotten out.

Then Ethel Rohan, with whom I was not at all familiar, read. I stood leaning against the door frame, still behind it, as she read the story of two women in a bar in Dublin. It was very enjoyable right off, with a very natural flow and believable dialogue, which was very much improved by Rohan's wonderful cadence.

As the story went on, I began to get a sense of the core, around which she was writing; it seemed to me a fleshy, wordless thing, throbbing with mute life. I felt it in the words, ripped as they were from it, and still in its orbit. And suddenly, I realized that I was gradually becoming more and more seriously nauseated, the power of these words reacting violently with the messy pit of anxiety that was my stomach. I stumbled, rather ungraciously, a bit of the way down the hallway, and sat down, knocking over a piece of wood and a candle, both of which I returned to their original positions (though some wax spilled), and listened to the rest of the story, which was wrapping up at that point.

Sitting in the hallway, away from (what felt to me, at least, like) the crush of the crowd, with the altered acoustics, my body quieted itself. I of course, now felt terribly embarrassed on top of my anxiety, so I just sat there while Steve was introduced. As he started reading, I slipped into an empty room, with a wall between myself and the readers - I'm fairly certain it was meant to be the bathroom - and smoked a cigarette while listening to Steve's poems.

The code word of the night, this time around, was definitely "dark," with Steve doing extended riffs on "satanism" and grindcore (as a literary genre invented in Quebec, as I recall). The overlap between the two nights was fairly minimal, as I'd sort of hoped; although by that point in the night, I was kind of wishing that some of the more lighthearted poems would make a reappearance. Even without them, and removed as I was, Steve's reading left me significantly closer to equilibrium than I had been before. I walked out of the apartment complex feeling like a complete asshole, which was good, because prior to Steve I was definitely in such a fucked state of mind that the possibility I was acting an asshole could not have possibly occurred to me. Baby steps.


So I left, and walked (a really stupid way back) to Castro Street Station, and caught the Muni to the BART, and headed back to Oakland. My housemate suggested we get drinks, so we walked to a bar neither of us had been to before, called Cafe Van Kleef. Which turned out to be a (not so) pleasant little epilogue to a very, very strange weekend.

Because who would turn out to be in the bar but good old "Shotgun" Phil Tagami. Oakland's resident millionaire, who pulled a shotgun when members of Occupy were outside of his building on the day of the General Strike, was out shaking hands and buying drinks for the whole bar. He didn't, luckily, talk to us; if he had, my roommate would've almost certainly exploded. But his presence did have one particularly fun side effect.

When we went to the beer garden for a cigarette, and to get away from Tagami, a large drunk man suddenly engaged us in conversation, which quickly went from his bragging about going to an afterparty with "an important person at the bar" who he was trying to suck up to in hopes of getting a job, to his bragging about how, when he gets drunk, he has a tendency to sexually assault women.

Having been slightly-less-than-sober for about six hours at this point, and with Tagami finally gone, we paid our tab, ordered Pizza Man, and watched a couple episodes of Married With Children and, finally, the weekend ended.