16 November, 2015

Poetry at Patreon

As some of you know, Patreon is a site that enables individuals to help support the content that they love. But more than a company, it's also a place and a group of people. Bay Area-based Patreon creators like myself were invited to visit the Patreon office last Tuesday for a poetry event, and I figured it would be nice to meet some of the folks who help me keep this photo blog up and running.

So that's how I found myself chatting with my benchmate Selena, who described the office "as if the word 'startup' threw up all over everything." But not in a bad way, she clarified. "I mean, it's nice, but…"

She was right, of course, but the venue seemed to fit the character of the event. While I was there to see Patreon, much of the audience had shown up for comedian/poet/performer Derrick Brown (pictured), along with his contemporaries Annelyse Gelman and Jason Bayani. Just prior to the event, I saw Brown duck away from seemingly-perpetual bouts of dancing to go do a handful of pullups on an exercise station that was tucked beneath an open air staircase.
"There are several ways to get 'got' in a city. The prime offense is to always be looking up."
Jason Bayani started off the evening with… I don't know… A poem? A feeling? A window to another world? Whatever it was, I loved it. The poem itself, "Kein / Muenchen," was the centerpiece of an experience that was some combination of visual and visceral. It didn't transport me to Munich, so much as transport the Munich experience back.

I mean, when I talked with Bayani beforehand, he avoided describing his poetry other than as "personal." I can see why. "Kein / Muenchen" was — is — a personal tale that reminds you of the ties between the physical aspects of a place and how it makes you feel to be there, looking up, because you just can't help it.

I caught up with benchmates Stephanie and Jeremy afterwards and they confirmed that the piece strongly recalled each of their own experiences visiting Munich in the past. You can find the poem online here, along with a short feature on Bayani.
Annelyse Gelman took the stage next. While also a poet — she and Bayani both have books published through Derrick Brown's poetry publication house, Write Bloody Publishing — her Tuesday evening performance was primarily a musical piece. What struck me was her ability to embrace mistakes.

Well… maybe not mistakes, really. But she took the kinds of sounds other people might make by accident, and she formed them into an intentional component of her music. And listening to it reminded me of the unconscious expectations that we form while listening to music, and that the right song can force us to recognize those biases, and to reconsider what "music" can sound like.
Derrick Brown was all over the place. In a good way. The energy that characterized his fidgeting before the show continued throughout, and he took us on a topsy-turvy journey through different kinds of feelings. Happy stories that were actually sad. Sad stories that ended up being funny. Confusing stories that somehow managed to offer deep revelations about human nature. It was all there. After the fact, Brown admitted to me that he loves playing with the audience's emotions and expectations.

For the bit in the photograph, Brown asked for volunteer couples who had been together for at least two years. He picked one and had them sit in front of the audience, facing us. He then described himself as a high-tech mind-reader, broadcasting the supposed inner thoughts of the two volunteers in an absurd, obviously-prefabricated monologue.

But in practice, he constructed a situation that allowed the couple to reveal actual aspects of their inner thoughts to each other, and to us. You could tell when the ridiculous monologue struck on an actual feeling because the couples' reactions would become momentarily sincere or vulnerable, amid all the laughter. "Uh-oh," you could see one think to themself. The situation also induced a heightened sense of empathy from the audience — I watched the couple closely, because it would be cruel to keep laughing during one of those fragile moments. The golden rule seemed to guide all of our behavior for those few minutes.
And more generally, throughout the performance, Brown displayed a masterful control of our behavior and reactions. When he wanted us to laugh, we convulsed with cackles and giggles and guffaws. The most ridiculous situation would be followed by the perfect one-liner, and we would just lose it. Then moments later, some new turn of events would demand our most grave consideration, and we would return to stoic silence, ears and eyes rapt with attention, hearts hoping.
After his final poem, Brown thanked our hosts, somehow uttered "let's all thank our DJ" with a mostly-straight face, and then cranked up the tunes again. People milled around, chatting with each other, meeting unfamiliar faces, and waiting in line for signatures.

In the somewhat raucous atmosphere, I was surprised to spot Gelman, perched atop a table that seems to embody the word "rustic," leafing through one of Brown's poetry books. Perhaps some of the best hiding spots are in plain sight.
Another unexpected contrast was between Brown himself — still, for once, despite the profusion of sound and music — and some fans who danced to the grooves as they jauntily waited for him to finish his painstakingly-careful inscription. Clearly, he was still in control.

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