MY CAREER AS A BLACK POET
Back in the
early 90s, my friend Brad Hamlin asked me to come to an open
microphone poetry reading with him. He had introduced me to
this kickass alcoholic writer, Charles Bukowski, who inspired
me to write some of my own stuff. I told him my stuff was
pretty lousy, but he assured me that I’d be great when compared
to the crappy lineup of misfits that would be there. There were
so many depressing wretches lounging about, it was like hanging
out at the parking lot after a Smiths concert.
These poetry readings were always hilariously awful. Everyone would scribble their names on a sign-up sheet and take turns reading their babblings to get meaningless courtesy applause when they were through.
I was nervous, but after about 4 beers, I went up to the microphone, and read the lyrics to the 60s Spider-Man cartoon as if it were the greatest poem in the world. It got a great response, and I was hooked. I started writing a lot more of my own stuff. It was really more like stand-up comedy routine stuff than actual poetry, but it gave me a lot of confidence in performing in front of people.
Unlike most poets, I was employed, bathed regularly, and had sex with someone that actually existed, so I found it difficult to write about the same stuff that crowd was dwelling in. Typically I wrote about toys, cereal, and movies, which was basically my origin story of how I ended up writing about pop culture for a living.
There were all sorts of characters there. One guy wrote a poem
about getting sexually assaulted by his father, and wrote that
he "cried a milky white tear." I laughed out loud at the
bizarre imagery, and everyone thought I was the biggest ass in
Then there was this old lady with missing teeth that would read graphic sexual poetry that'd make Caligula blush. There's something just wrong about someone that looks like your grandma talking about swallowing hippie-jism.
Brad and I would attend these things weekly, as the heckling opportunities were like nothing we'd ever seen. One night, a hideous guy introduced a poem saying, "This was going to be a poem about heroin, but since I've never done any, I decided instead to make it a poem about women." Too easily, I shouted back, "Yeah, like THAT'S any more believable?"
Once, I went to a special reading in Davis, California, which is an extremely liberal college town. There were about 80 people there, and nearly all were women who looked like they hated men more than shaving their legs. When it was my turn to read, I got up and proceeded to recite my epic "Tabasco Lady". Just imagine the looks I got when I rattled out these first lines:
"Tabasco Lady, Tabasco Lady
Why does your pussy sting?
Tabasco Lady, Tabasco Lady
Your hot breath makes me want to sing!"
It got far more pornographic than that. With ridiculous lines like,
”I’m like a Dorito all over you
As I dip my chip in your spicy goo!”
When I was through, I lifted my eyes up from the paper and not a single lady in the audience was clapping. Every single eye was burning holes through me with a unified hatred that I could feel. I was proud of it. I mean, it was probably just as hard to get everyone to hate me that strongly, as it was to get a standing ovation.
I got sick of the whole scene and stopped going altogether after a while. It seemed like the only reason people read at these things was to gratify their ego by feeding off the courtesy applause. It was time to move on to other things.
But I still read a lot of stuff, and I came across some copies of a black poetry publication called NEW POETS REVOLUTION.
As you can see,
from a few of the copies above, it’s a politically extreme
publication to say the least. The copy on the right featured a
poem titled “RUN O.J.” that featured a picture of Simpson
wearing a Messiah-like crown of thorns. I almost died reading
“Run, O.J., Run!
America’s favorite son,
Run with a gun!
Our national hero
in a bucking Bronco media show…”
“Your Fourth Amendment rights
in the Bill of Rights
abused by whites…”
Classic stuff! It inspired me so much that I wrote a “black” poem about how black people are unfairly portrayed as food spokespeople. I sent it in thinking they’d realize it was a joke and simply toss it in the trash.
Two months later I got an excited letter from their editor, and was referred to as “Brother Robert.” Apparently they were excited about this great new black poet from Sacramento and wanted to showcase my work in an upcoming issue of their paper. They also wanted me to send in my picture!
I never wrote back, figuring that would be the end of it, but another month later I got their latest issue in the mail, and opened it up to find THIS…
(sorry for the
crappy quality of the newspaper, I had to rescue it from a
flooded basement last year)
There it was for
the 14,000 lucky subscribers to see. I felt bad, that someone
was gonna wise up to me, but they never did, and ultimately I
thought it was a funny enough piece that even if they found out
I was white, it wouldn’t matter.
I love how I complain about the lack of black food character role models, and hold up Mr. Clean and Captain Crunch as proud examples that Black America is missing out on. How they made it through their bullshit filter is still amazing to me.
Brad and I decided to take the phony ethnic identity thing further and fool even more folks. I created a new identity, "James Compton", and started writing hardcore "gangsta" poetry that our friend Gary published his magazines "FREETHOUGHT!" One issue features work from Compton, a fictional gay poet Brad created (with a horrible line in it “we held each other trembling…like nervous gods), and a collection of work from a Hispanic street gang named Freeport Locos that was featured right alongside poems that had our own names on it! We just sent it to him from other addresses, and used different fonts on the printouts (one was even in crayon) so he'd be none the wiser. This magazine, which was supposed to be a sampling of Sacramento's greatest poets, turned out to be almost entirely the work of Brad and I.
That was 10 years ago and I haven’t written much poetry since then. Once the internet came around, I found the perfect medium to talk about toys and movies instead.
But I’ve noticed a lack of motivating black poetry out there lately. If I can only figure out how to get on Def Comedy Jam…