Behind The Poetry: Who I Was Starting Davidson, Part 1

Posted 2/22/2010 by smartblackboy in Labels: , , , ,

Click here to read the poem Who I Was; Starting Davidson.

Before I begin the actual stories behind the poem - I want to talk about the experiences I have had performing this poem.

From really 2001 - 2008, I was blessed to have many great performance experiences, at many universities across the country, at art festivals, for talent contests, opening up for established groups, and of course the normal open mic scene.

However, the most special performance experience I have had involved this poem and happened right after I turned 19.

As I alluded to last time, when I was 19 I had won some grants to travel and make art abroad. Thanks to the support and patience of Dr. Arturo Lindsay, I was able to take part in an artists colony in Panama called Taller Portobelo.

In addition to making visual art, I also did some writing, and one night shared some poems with the other artists in the colony. They were all pretty impressed, and decided I needed to read at the festival - Feria de Portobelo.

Now this was an international arts festival that was sponsored by Panama's government, and the reading at the festival featured some of the most notable poets from Panama. It was like being invited to read with Nikki Giovanni, Amir Sulaiman, Black Ice, and Billy Collins.

Not only that, we were in Panama - they speak Spanish in Panama - so I had to translate my poem, which is the longest poem I have ever written, into Spanish.

I had never really done translation of poetry - but boy is it hard! I had a very patient artist from Spain, Gustavo, who worked to help me translate it and after a week, we finally got the thing done.

So, the day of the performance, which took place in this great old world Spanish fort, there are 1,000 people gathered to hear it - I am a 19 year old kid on stage with these great poets from another country - at an international arts festival- and I am terrified.

We had agreed that I would perform the poem in English, and then another person would read the Spanish version of the poem (because my accent was/and is still quite terrible).

At this time the poem was still really fresh for me - and when I performed it I put everything I had into the piece. And I know we always try to put everything we have into our performances, but in a real way this poem was all I had for therapy.

It was the story of why I hated Dallas (I did back then, never wanted to come back), why I couldn't leave Dallas behind me, the beautiful, artistic, and dangerous lives of my friends, and then the personal pain that was hidden beneath it all.

Because at this time I am still very much wrestling with the fact that I hated myself, didn't care about my own life, definitely didn't care whether I lived or died, was pretty convinced that I would die before I turned 20, and from time to time would try end my life by my own hands.

And this poem was the first time that I had ever admitted any of this - really to anyone, and I will get into much more detail in Part 2, but at this time - nothing meant more to me than this poem.

So, when I say I got up there and delivered the performance of my life - you have to believe me. I was crying by the end of the poem - it was so emotional to me, because the irony was here I am telling all these people about how I wanted to kill myself, at the apex of my artistic career. And add to that I had just learned two days ago that GianCarlo had died, and so I was kind of doing it with him in mind - and it was everything that poetry can be.

Yet, if that was end of it - I don't know if it would be the best performance experience I have ever had. What made it transcendent was when one of the Panamanian poets read the Spanish version of the poem.

All of the emotion, and anger, and sadness - all of it was gone from the piece. In Spanish, the poem was just simply beautiful, heartbreakingly beautiful. And it was amazing how it could have even been the same poem - but by changing the language and changing the reader - it totally transformed the piece and the crowd loved it.

A few months later I had the opportunity to perform the piece at the Undermain Theater for a Word Space event. This was the first time I had actually performed the piece in Dallas, which the poem centers on.

As I started getting into the first half of the piece, I heard the strangest sound - laughter.

In North Carolina, the piece was emotional/angry/defiant and the crowd reacted in stunned, appreciative silence and applause. In Panama, the piece was angry but then turned calm, beautiful, and meditative - due to the translation. In Dallas, they thought it was funny.

Mainly because the crowd was in on the jokes - I wasn't exposing something new to them, I was telling them about who they already were, and they reacted with a chuckle - yeah you got us.

So, besides the content just from a purely performance standpoint I learned a lot about how important the audience is in terms of how your piece will be interpreted - and just because you get three sets of applause, they may be clapping for three different reasons.

Next time, I will get into the stories behind the piece so keep reading and stay tuned.

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