A Lesson from Maria…


The second time I ever read poetry in public, I was at Mad Bar in Wicker Park at a little reading series called “Mental Graffiti.” I was 19 and had only seen spoken word once before…when I came to Mental Graffiti the first time.

My Mom and a friend came along to witness what I would later call a miracle in my life: poetry performed live and on fire. From the first second I ever saw spoken word, I was hooked and wanted to excel at it, to triumph in it, more than anything.

That night, I trembled my way onto the stage and read my poem, hands shaky with fear, but also righteous indignation. My poem was about going to school with so many older people who seemed to think I was an idiot, just because I was 19. They were right, but I didn’t know it at the time. I was just pissed at being dismissed and kind of bratty about it.

There was one poet who completely blew me away at Mental Graffiti. Her name was Maria McCray and she was in her late 40’s, a former Marine who was also a Vietnam Vet. Her poetry sang with heartache and tragedy, rage and irony. She was a storyteller of immense and exquisite proportions. I wanted to be just like her, both as a writer and a performer.

After I made my way off stage, to big smiles from my Mom and good friend, I noticed Maria heading straight for me. I got so excited, head spinning with possibilities: maybe she liked my poem (!), maybe she wanted to mentor me (!), maybe we’d become friends (!) and I’d sit at that table in back, surrounded by the most talented of all those who spoke, whispered, sung, rhymed and screamed themselves into power across that stage.

Maria got right in my face and spat, “That sucked. You suck. And everyone at that table back there agrees with me. Just don’t come back, okay?.”

My Mom tried to interrupt her by saying, “Well, I’m her mother and I think—” Maria cut her off with a curt, “That’s nice, ” and continued to tear into my abominable writing skills.

Devastated. The death of my dream before I even fell asleep.

Of course, I cried a little. All right, a lot. I threw a little pity party and wondered what was so bad about my writing, about me.

And then I got really pissed.

You don’t want me to come back?

I’m totally fucking coming back and I’m not going to stop coming back until you acknowledge that you were wrong and I’m the shit. Every. Week.

And that’s what happened.

It took 3 years…one slam final where I placed second to last, lots of nights of bad poems, hardly any sleep, parking tickets, repeating my name every week because no one seemed to remember it and a moment where I called my Mom to tell her that I was dropping out of school to be a poet.

These days, when it seems that all the people making money have MFAs and I’m struggling to just get through the rest of my Bachelor’s program, I consider that I might have made things harder on myself than necessary.

However, three years after that first moment, I got my first feature at Mental Graffiti and the year after that, I made it onto Mental Graffiti’s National Poetry Slam team. We placed 16th that year in Seattle and I learned a lot about the politics of slam and what happens when egos, passion, politics, art and ambition collide in one boiling, unpredictable stew.

I started learning more and drove myself hard to not only write and perform well, but also to teach and help shape the next generation of those in love with the word.

Before Def Poetry Jam, but after Nationals in Seattle, Maria apologized to me…and my Mom. She told me that she was wrong about me and that she was glad that I didn’t listen to her. After that, we became close friends and, in 2011, myself, along with her loving family, friends and fellow artists, helped honor her memory after she passed away.

There’s no such thing as failure. There is simply trying and not trying. I’m glad I didn’t listen to Maria, but fortunate for the lesson in perseverance and faith in myself, beyond all obstacles, doubters and anyone who tries to determine my level of possibility and promise.

I eventually fell out of love with spoken word, unable to deal with the egos and bloodlust for notoriety and infamy. I didn’t like how competitive I became in those spaces and the effect that it had on me to not confront sexism or racism or homophobia or sexism or ableism or sizeism or any number of stupid things people will say to get a laugh or a high score or a round of applause.

So, I moved into my own blend of live song and poetry, social commentary and burlesque, music and monologue. This blending of genres and expressions has allowed me to connect with artists of myriad perspectives and backgrounds and I’ve found more joy in collaboration and coalition than I ever had in trying to become somebody’s star.

If success is finding what you love and being able to do that, then I have been and continue to be very successful.

Maria McCray, a women who triumphed gloriously and struggled and scrapped to live her life, her way, had no idea that she was setting the course for my life that fateful night in 1999 and I owe her a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, in this life or the next.

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